Stephanie Farnsworth reviews And the Band Played On, one of the most detailed books documenting the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“Three years later, television commentators would still be talking about AIDS as that disease you rarely heard anything about, as if they were helpless bystanders and not the very people who themselves had decreed the silence in the public media.” pp. 172
If long reads are your thing then it’s hard to do better than And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. Few pieces of literary journalism are as epic and as in-depth as this one. Shilts leaves very few stones unturned, which is a high compliment when dealing with an issue as complex and wide in scope as the 1980s AIDS crisis.
And the Band Played On was published in a decade that not only saw the world transformed by the AIDS crisis, but saw journalism trying to perfect its new art form of literary journalism. Shilts was a pioneer who helped show that journalism has no limits or boundaries; it can tell a fictional story that is also fact.
The book is a challenge of commitment on the face of it; at over six hundred pages (and a further thirty pages detailing sources), Shilts proved how dedicated he was to documenting the early story of AIDS. It’s incredibly rare to ever find work this detailed and that’s why this text is a remarkable piece of history.
If Shilts does fall down at any point it’s by taking too broad an approach. The book is undeniably thorough in following the lives of activists, medical professionals, and the goings on in Washington in response to the emerging public health crisis. The extra snippets of detail of reactions around the world help to build the picture of the horror of that time. There are truly shocking responses such as the Cuban government shutting down the only LGBTQ bar was a knee jerk response, as well as descriptions of shocking hate crimes across the world. The global stories are indeed helpful to paint the picture of just how truly alarming the crisis was, not just in terms of health but with living with the threat of bigotry.
One gang raped two men with a crowbar. Once arrested, one attacker told the police, “If we don’t kill these fags, they’ll kill us with their fucking AIDS disease.” pp. 353
However, the reaction is very much focused upon the West, and Shilts himself barely mentions the plight of bisexual men and transgender women who were particularly at risk of exposure to HIV. In trying to take on every angle, deeper exploration of the LGBTQ+ community was missed. Yet, Shilts does deserve praise. Almost every text focusing upon a particular element of AIDS forget that there were more than just gay men or poor people at risk. Shilts does explore poverty, disability, race and sexuality globally, as well as their intersections. Yet, if you wish to find out about how the crisis was handled outside of the West and with regard to transgender people then The Wisdom of Whores is the superior text.
Shilts does, thankfully, examine how the agenda set from the White House filtered down and harmed people who were desperate for support. And the Band Played On is possibly the most damning text of Reagan’s administration to date. It wasn’t until twenty thousand Americans had already died that the then president decided to say the word “AIDS”. The text is unsparing in its criticism of the complacency of the White House and Congress. Thousands were dying, but politicians were too scared to talk about men having anal sex with other men in case it lost them votes. It showed that a government didn’t have to actively be persecuting people to be responsible for such a tragedy; the AIDS crisis was brought about by a reluctance to accept that LGBTQ+ people, drug addicts, people of colour and poor people were worthy of humanity and of life. Not once did the book falter at showing the responsibility public health bodies bear for taking care of the entire population, nor how politicians must be accountable to all constituents.
Shilts is also scathing of the industry of journalism. Throughout every section of the book there are multiple pieces of press and newspaper clippings from the AIDS crisis, as well as condemnation that negative reports were the only reports at all in an overwhelming climate of silence. Often, the clippings are brutal in their bigotry and Shilts makes clear the influence they held on politicians and in causing a realm of hatred for individuals who had HIV. He also criticises the press for printing a bogus study that claimed “everyday contact” could expose people to the virus. The consequences of that report were dire. Hate crimes spiked against gay and bisexual men and there were stories of hospital staff refusing to treat patients who had HIV or AIDS.
The media, though, was generally overwhelmingly silent. The hate filled reports were not countered with opposition pointing to the truth but with silence. The lies were left to hang in the air because people simply weren’t concerned with who was dying. Indeed, most reports went out of their way to soothe the “general population” that they were not at risk of being exposed to HIV, which showed just who was concerned as citizens and who was not.
“Sorry we haven’t done anything on this before now,” a Washington Post reporter told Bill Kraus as they started an interview. “We just haven’t been able to find a handle that would make the story interesting to the general population.” pp.576
The LGBTQ+ community itself is not spared from examination. While the epidemic began to explode across the US, cis gay men were tearing themselves apart over the issue of whether to close the bath houses. The context of the creation of bath houses cannot be forgotten; they were a refuge for all those who had been forced to hide to express their sexuality. Yet, they were often run by those who were simply interested in profit and were making little of the recommended changes to help tackle the crisis. There were prolonged arguments about their future, with civil liberties being put against health concerns. The deep distrust from both sides of the argument did nothing to help matters and this summed up much of the era. The environment of understandable distrust and suspicion often got in the way of any advancements of combating the terrible situation of the rise of HIV. It meant that even deciding on a name for AIDS was painstaking. If the crisis can be summed up with one idiom, it would be “all talk and little action”.
The style of And the Band Played On only adds to its power. Shilts takes us throughout the majority of the eighties with poignant diary entries from the perspective of people facing death with AIDS to researchers trying to work out how to decipher and combat the HIV virus. The most horrifying and inescapable truth is that the virus wasn’t a complicated one. It took only weeks to isolate the virus. Yet the long process of trying to secure funding and support from Congress meant that health care professionals were already ten steps behind before they were even aware of the epidemic they were going to be faced with.
And the Band Played On would be a worthy script for any blockbuster film showing the world being faced with a devastating virus, but it must never be forgotten that this was the reality. It’s easy to grow complacent in the fight against AIDS given recent medical progress to combat the HIV virus but it was apathy that brought the world to such a horrifying point in the first place. Shilts work documented one of the greatest shifts in the community as he himself explained, the community would talk of before and after the emergence of AIDS; the virus changed every facet of life irrevocably for LGBTQ+ people.
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