Clearly cognizant of the dangers posed by this assault from the right – and fiercely guarding hard-earned political gains – some elements in the gay community reacted instinctively by denying the dangers of AIDS, by accusing the media of blowing up the story to pander to antihomosexual sentiment, and by, in the words of one reporter, making the “dubious argument … that the issue is more one of civil liberties than health.” Traditionally under siege from bigots around them, and now besieged by a horrifying disease among them, some homosexual men could not help but adopt a siege mentality in the early but crucial days of the AIDS crisis.
“So much of the gay movement is dominated by those dinosaurs from the ‘60s, and they’re happy when they can blame the government for not doing research and so happy when they can blame the media for not covering it right,” declared San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, who is gay.
The press had little choice but to devote considerable attention to this political tug of war, but it served to divert energy and attention from the urgent task of stopping the spread of the disease. By unleashing a nasty stream of invective, right-wing homophobes made AIDS a political issue rather than a health one and created a gay/AIDS stigma that helped perpetuate the dangerous myth that heterosexuals can’t catch the disease. For some in the frightened gay community, the political overtones of the crisis activated a defense mechanism that may well have extended the denial phase for those who needed to modify their behavior immediately.
Interestingly, it took the October 1985 death of Rock Hudson to help ease tensions between homosexuals and heterosexuals and to mark a dramatic turning point in media coverage of AIDS. For many heterosexuals Hudson was the first AIDS fatality they could identify with; his death created the first sense of shared suffering and helped bridge the chasm of grief between gays and straights. His death also dramatically broadened the scope of AIDS coverage, inducing People magazine and other purveyors of pop culture to begin disseminating the story to people who don’t usually read news magazines or the science and medical sections of newspapers.
As Hudson’s death was reverberating throughout the country, another momentous and disturbing AIDS revelation was emerging: the disease would not remain confined to the initial high-risk groups of homosexual men and intravenous drug users. NOW NO ONE IS SAFE FROM AIDS screamed a July 1985 Life magazine cover story that helped usher in the new era of fear. Confirmation that AIDS was starting to spread into the “general population” was just another chapter in an unfolding story that grows more ominous as each new page is turned, but it also illustrated the fundamental Catch-22 facing the press. In an attempt to keep the public up to date on what had clearly become a story of major import, the media dutifully and frequently reported on the current scientific and medical consensus on AIDS. But in some cases the news was changing as fast as it could be served up (NBC’s highly acclaimed movie about a young gay man with AIDS, An Early Frost, underwent 13 rewrites, mostly to accommodate new medical discoveries). For as they continued to investigate this previously unknown killer at a breakneck pace, researchers were constantly making discoveries that rendered earlier assumptions obsolete. Thus, the press found itself printing and broadcasting information that needed to undergo frequent and usually pessimistic revision. Those who felt safe from AIDS one day could receive very chilling news the next. Given the general denial of death and dying in our society, there was a powerful public impulse to find the silver lining that could exempt one’s self from worry.