We learn things. On October 26, 2016 researchers released the results of their study into the way that HIV/AIDS came to America. They find that it came from Africa by way of the Caribbean, it landed first in New York by 1970, and it spread to San Francisco by 1976. The question of how the virus got to the US has polluted the public discourse since the early nineteen-eighties. This is the point: If there is no clear and true explanation of how it got here, people who hated gay people were free to assign blame. Gays did it. Or the “gay-lifestyle” did it. Early accounts gave a name to someone called “patient zero”—Gaétan Dugas—a French Canadian airline steward. Dugas was thought to be the person who brought AIDS to the US and was said to have had sex partners on both coasts. He gave information to the Centers for Disease Control that helped them to understand that AIDS was sexually transmitted, but the number of his sex contacts interested many people‚ maybe 250 in a year. It was proposed that his immune system was overwhelmed by the dangers it had been subjected to. The fact that the epidemic first arose in the gay community also and perhaps preeminently allowed the President and Congressional leaders to ignore the “gay disease.” Gay men and Haitians were the populations most at risk, and the political response to the epidemic was that there was no urgency. These two populations were thought to be “expendable.” But now the researchers have “found neither biological nor historical evidence that [Dugan] was the primary case in the US,” and it has been long known that HIV infection is not limited to men, gay men, Haitians, or to any other population subgroup. This study is the answer to the attacks on gay people thirty-two years ago—they brought it on themselves—and even if the world has moved on, setting the record straight now is going to be good for gay people.
This study was published four days ago in Nature, the international weekly journal of science. See also here. Michael Worobey, whom NBC news identifies as “an expert on the evolution of viruses at the University of Arizona,” led the team of geneticists from Arizona and Cambridge University who analyzed the DNA and RNA from blood samples taken from men dated as early as 1970/1971. Worobey says in the NBC article that “No one should be blamed for the spread of viruses.” Well, that’s satisfying to hear, after years of white-hot condemnation of Dugas and of the gay population and of Haitians for “causing” AIDS through anal intercourse with large numbers of partners.
The Nature article makes clear that scientists had been suspicious of the “patient zero” concept since the beginning. The idea was given its first, full expression in Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On. What we know now is that the AIDS epidemic did not happen that way. The virus was not spread by one gay man having sex, it was spread by retroviruses doing what retroviruses do—spreading. And a man could get AIDS by having sex with one other man (or woman), or with 250—or any other number—of other men or women in a year.
Now we have the opportunity to look back on the hysteria of the AIDS years and to see who it was being hysterical. It was not the gay men and women, who, in the midst of their grief and anguish and anger, set about pretty quickly forming organizations to save their lives. They responded to the catastrophe that had struck them in the way that basically good people everywhere respond to catastrophes, by trying to protect themselves and by trying to help those around them. The people who were getting hysterical were people like William Buckley, the conservative writer who advocated tattooing the asses of HIV positive gay men. For a population that has been libeled continuously during the lifetimes of most LGBTQ people alive today, it is important that the record be set straight.
It is not a coincidence that as long as the country was still soaked in the narrative of the gays caused it we didn’t make progress on finding the cause of the disease. It was only in the late eighties (and after Reagan moved toward the end of his presidency) that ACT UP and other activist organizations began to take center stage and a new narrative began to take hold. Increased funding for the CDC increased progress in the search for a cure. By the time protease inhibitors were announced in 1996, the narrative of the epidemic was that LGBTQ people had supported medical success by putting pressure on politicians and on the public health and medical establishments. In short, the LGBTQ had done it for themselves.
This is another step toward an accurate history of LGBTQ people.