On June 5, 1981 the CDC warned about a troubling outbreak of Pneumocystis pneumonia in five otherwise healthy young, gay men in Los Angeles. Later that summer, when I reported on the outbreak for radio station KPFK, the number of cases had grown to 15, including four new cases in Los Angeles and six in San Francisco. And, in addition to the rare form of pneumonia, 26 gay men in California and New York had been diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer and other opportunistic infections. By the end of the year, this new disease, later called AIDS, would claim 121 lives.
I don’t suppose anyone who covered the early years of the AIDS epidemic came away untouched. I’ll never forget Robert Bland’s soft brown eyes and calm determination to serve as “an AIDS guinea pig,” even as he acknowledged that a cure would surely come long after his own death. Or the button imprinted with the defiant message “I Will Survive” that San Francisco AIDS activist Bobbi Campbell proudly wore right up until his death in 1984. Or the scathing criticism gay journalist Randy Shilts leveled at bathhouse owners who refused to provide condoms or even prevention information to their customers. Courage, defiance and anger; like the stages of grief, these came to symbolize for me the stages of AIDS activism. To be honest, fear was there, too, just below the surface.
By the time I began working as a video producer in 1985 the AIDS epidemic had expanded beyond the gay male community, and now affected an increasing number of people of color, teens, women and even infants and children. An educational video I co-produced for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in 1992-93 told the stories of four families struggling to deal with HIV/AIDS. It featured several school-age children, a 4-year-old girl (pictured above) and a baby boy. The message of the video, targeted to the parents and caregivers of children with HIV/AIDS, was not to give up hope, that new drug therapies were being tested and would soon be available. We titled the video “Hope for the Future.”
Watch the Video
I don’t know if any of the children on the video survived long enough to benefit from the new drug cocktails that eventually made AIDS a largely manageable disease. I heard that the baby, Christian, died shortly after we finished production. One thing you learn in an epidemic is to ration the amount of grief you have to handle at a given time. While I’d love to see those kids grown up and healthy, I have to admit they faced long odds and an uncertain future.
If anybody’s still counting, AIDS has claimed more than 35 million lives worldwide since 1981.