I was speaking with a friend the other day about comics, jokes, and dark humor. One of the things upon which we completely agree is that AIDS is not funny, and there is likely never going to be a funny AIDS joke. The title of this post is about as close as I think one can come, and it is simply a dig at how incredibly long and detailed of a work is Randy Shilt’s novel, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. Even Publishers’ Weekly describes the book as “an exhaustive account” of the early years of the AIDS crisis. That being said, it is mesmerizing.
The book begins way back in the 70’s with a CDC expedition to Africa to fight the original Ebola Zaire outbreak, and it continues through 1987 — right after the LAV/HTLV-III viruse(s) were renamed HIV and the “Western Blot” antibody test was released. Given that I was only about 5 years old at the start, the timeline was very crunched in my memory. It was a welcome refresher as to how little we knew for so long about so many aspects of the disease. On the other hand, it was heart wrenching to hear recounted the political speeches promising a vaccine within 2 years…25 years later now with no vaccine in sight.
It is good for us all to have a fat dose of historical reality now and then. Not long after reading this book, I saw the movie, Dallas Buyers Club 1, about a Texas man who smuggled drugs into the USA so that AIDS patients could have access before the long process of FDA approval was complete. What interested me most about the movie is the level of inaccuracy of detail regarding HIV/AIDS history. I likely would not have picked up on it had I not recently digested the 700+ pages of this story with its almost day-by-day breakdown of the outbreak. One of the most powerful elements of this real life story, for me, is that people were dying for so long without having any idea *what* was killing them. Can you imagine having all of the people in your life mysteriously dying while no one outside your neighborhood seems to care at all? It’s a horror movie come to life.
If you’re gay, read the book! If you’re young enough not to have been there, educate yourself on what happened and how the US government allowed it to happen to us because of our unspeakable sexuality (literally, President Reagan would not speak of it for years). If you’re old enough to have been there, it’s a good reminder about how far we’ve come − from unspeakable to Will & Grace to the right to marry.
SIDE NOTE: The book was made into a 1993 TV movie starring Matthew Modine and Allen Alda as the main two characters, Dr. Don Francis and Dr. Robert Gallo. 700+ pages cannot be translated into 120 minutes, so obviously it’s like apples and oranges to compare the two. I did revisit the film after reading the book, and it *does* manage to hit a couple of points really well: (1) the government let us die because we’re queer, and (2) the gay community and its leaders had its own self-defeating role to play in it all. Sir Ian McKellen, Phil Collins, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Gere add to the surprising star power given to the made-for-TV movie.
- It profoundly bothers me that in no place (around the web or in newspapers) have I seen an apostrophe used in the title to this movie. ↩