Thirty-five years ago this week the CDC warned about a troubling outbreak of Pneumocystis pneumonia in five otherwise healthy young, gay men in California. Later that summer, when I reported on the outbreak for radio station KPFK, the number of cases had grown to 41, including 6 in California and 20 in New York. And, in addition to the rare form of pneumonia, gay men were starting to come down with a rare form of 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 their customers with condoms or educational materials. 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 community, and now affected 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 AIDS. It featured several school-age boys, 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.”
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 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’m not ready to face the other possibility.
If anybody’s still counting, AIDS has claimed more than 35 million lives worldwide since 1981.