Oore two years into a global pandemic that has killed more than 6 million people, infected more than 500 million, and irrevocably changed the way we live, work, and interact, while some mourn and some continue to rehabilitate constantly, for others, an investigation continues.
How did we come here? What mistakes were made? And what can we learn? For those who survived another global health crisis decades before, with a much higher death rate but considerably lower visibility, many of these questions remain. In the summer of 1981, a quietly alarming new disease began to afflict gay men, initially reported in local gay media, but soon covered in the New York Times with the still rather unforgettable headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Gay Men “. That year, 234 people in the United States died. In 1982, the CDC used the term AIDS for the first time. By the end of the decade, more than 100,000 Americans had died.
“I think the fear was the overwhelming feeling,” journalist Leon Neyfakh told The Guardian, after interviewing many survivors of the era for the final season of his Fiasco podcast. “Just knowing you might have it but you’re not sure and you might not know it for months or years because for a long time there was no way to check while in same time, all your friends were dying.”
While there are still many issues to be resolved with how the United States and many other countries have mismanaged and continue to mishandle Covid-19, there has been at least some sense that there been be manipulated. But under Ronald Reagan’s administration, at a time when the majority of U.S. states still upheld sodomy laws, treating a condition that primarily affected homosexuals, and then eventually drug users sharing needles, did not was not considered a priority. “Any time you talk about sex or drugs, it’s a moral issue, not a public health issue,” Joycelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s former surgeon general, says on the podcast.
Years later, Elders was one of many still sounding the alarm (before being brutally and cruelly fired after insisting on more open and honest forms of sex education), but at the time, it was up to homosexuals, and then their staunch allies, to weaponize, seeking solutions that no one else was. They’re the heroes of the fifth season of Audible’s Fiasco, a dense and often devastating podcast series devoted to clarifying the daily realities of a particular historical event. Previous seasons explored the 2000 Bush-Gore election and the battle to desegregate Boston schools.
“I don’t think we’ve ever done a season of our show that had a message with a capital M,” Neyfakh said on Zoom, keen not to position the show as a form of public service. “We’re always much more into exposing the complexity of these issues and letting people present their point of view and explaining where they’re coming from and letting listeners take in whatever they want. We always try to find the human beings who populated these stories and we want to defamiliarize them from the abstractions in which they generally come to us.
At first, and for far too long afterwards, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence (it took until 1985 before an official test was even available), and with little or no awareness of what it was and the details of how it was transmitted, homosexuals were forced into action even as their friends disappeared around them. Neyfakh called it “a dichotomy of dread and grief but coupled with an irrepressible will to survive and find a way out” and it’s something we see both in those he speaks with and in those who don’t. are no longer here with us but whose stories are shared. There was Michael Callen, a New York singer-turned-activist who worked alongside self-proclaimed “S&M hustler” Richard Berkowitz, to educate the dangerously misinformed gay community. Callen was diagnosed in 1982 at age 27, but alongside Berkowitz and with the direct help of doctor-turned-HIV/AIDS researcher Joseph Sonnabend, spent the next decade, before his death at age 38 years old, working on extremely important projects, and at the unprecedented time, works such as the fundamental manual How to Have Sex in an Epidemic.
But what Fiasco details is that trying to control the sex lives of gay men was an uphill battle and for understandable reasons, often too easily simplified or harshly judged. “One thing I didn’t appreciate until we started working on it was the fact that this period followed an explosion of gay life,” Neyfakh said. “In New York, San Francisco and LA, gay liberation was in full swing when it started and there was a lot of resistance when Berkowitz and Callen started advocating for safer sex because it felt like coming back. back it wasn’t just When you were told you had to stop your party many felt like it was like they were being told that people have to conform to the general society of a way that was anathema to gay liberation.
One of the most interesting and challenging episodes focuses on the bathhouse war in San Francisco. Once seen as a liberating space where gay men could express their sexual freedom, the rise of HIV has quickly turned them into a potentially dangerous source of infection. While some, including many gay men, wanted them closed, others insisted they remain open, seeing their closure as a dangerous step on the road to recriminalizing sodomy nationwide. For Neyfakh, “this freedom versus public health debate obviously resonated” in the Covid era and it also shed light on the complicated fissures that have opened up within the gay community. “There was just a total void of knowledge and so it’s no surprise that people had what turned out to be incorrect theories,” he said.
For many, the outlines of what the Reagan administration did and especially did not do will not be particularly telling, but the literally deadly apathy of the first couple and those who worked alongside them remains shocking. Gruesome, newly unearthed audio footage plays from the very first time a reporter asked Reagan’s press secretary about the virus and is greeted with a quip before dissolving in laughter. It took four years and the death of actor Rock Hudson to wake them up with a start with Reagan finally saying AIDS for the first time in late 1985. At the same time, the far right was taking advantage of the moment to continuing to push a homophobic agenda, led by televangelist Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, using words like “punishment” and “sin” to further isolate an already isolated community.
“I think I didn’t really appreciate until I started working on the show how neatly AIDS fit into the pre-existing prejudices people had against gays and lesbians,” said Neyfakh. “It triggered all the specific hateful biases people had about these people who were seen as so separate from the mainstream.”
What might be more telling for some is an episode that delves into the so-called “hemophilia holocaust” which saw the blood industry’s failure to take action resulting in the infection of 10 000 hemophiliacs by transfusion, more than half of their total population in the United States. “I think what shocked me perhaps even more than just the fact of the numbers was how powerful inertia was on the blood industry,” Neyfakh said. “Not changing practices and refusing to accept that their product, whether donated blood or paid plasma, was suddenly essentially lethal and there were people trying to warn them and people trying to make proposals on how the product could be made safer. It felt like a story about more than hemophilia or blood donation, it felt like a story about how institutions and industries close ranks and resist change even in the face of emergency.
While great strides have been made, especially with the life-saving “triple cocktail” of antiretroviral drugs (which took until 1996 to be created), what’s most striking about the eight season episodes is how so much has changed. In 2020, approximately 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses worldwide. There is still no vaccine against HIV. Needle exchange programs remain effective but reviled. Sexual health and sex education are always treated as moral issues. Communities of color are still vastly more at risk. Anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is on the rise. If something like HIV were to strike again, would things be different?
“I think there is little reason to be optimistic,” Neyfakh said. “How easy it is for people, if it’s not in front of them, not to think about it. I think that, coupled with the homophobia it sparked, is a big part of why there was so little public urgency around this disease and I think it would happen now, if you can put something out of view, it’s very easy not to care.