Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic (St. Martin's Press, 1987)
Reissued in paperback by St. Martin's in 2000.
The day Randy Shilts submitted his manuscript for And the Band Played On, he learned he had tested positive for AIDS. He hid his diagnosis until almost a year before his death in 1994 because he didn't want to become an activist —he wanted to remain simply a reporter. Yet the book rings with all the passion and dedication of a staunch activist.
This bitter recollection of the politics and bureaucracy that hampered AIDS education, prevention, and research resoundingly indicts the Reagan administration and mainstream media for ignoring the epidemic. Attention and funding was not forthcoming until Rock Hudson, the 1950s Hollywood romantic leading man, was diagnosed with AIDS on his deathbed in 1985. That turning point, Shilts wrote, marked the end of the media's ability to neglect an epidemic that had been categorized as a gay disease.
Shilts covered the epidemic as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Frequently throughout And the Band Played On, he notes that a reporter from a San Francisco newspaper or a journalist from the Chronicle was the first person to draw attention to this or that part of the epidemic. He could have toned down this tiresome trumpeting and not surrendered his message: very few mainstream newspapers covered the epidemic before it was sexy news.
Shilts first assigns blame for the epidemic to the Reagan administration. Often the most enraging passages in And the Band Played On are the recounts of congressional testimony, outright lying, and budget bullet-dodging by higher-ups in the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and the National Cancer Institute. But Shilts also blames the media for ignoring the epidemic and stigmatizing a disease that first and most strongly struck homosexual men. Also under close scrutiny is warring researcher Bob Gallo, who Shilts blames for undermining international cooperation in identifying the AIDS virus. He blames blood bank administrators who denied for years that AIDS was borne through tainted donations. He blames the then-mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, and his public health officials for disregarding that city's AIDS sufferers. Finally, he blames the gay community for wasting time fighting against itself when it could have closed bathhouses sooner and fought harder and sooner for better prevention measures.
This book is weighted by revelations that hundreds of people could have acted to prevent thousands of AIDS cases. The abject futility of early crusaders and activists clearly shines throughout And the Band Played On. The reader's heart will ache with "what if" and sorrow from "what was."
Randy Shilts' entry in Queer Theory name bank
Critique of And the Band Played On and Shilts by Michael Bronski, gay writer and activist
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