In the spring of 1983, the gay community was experiencing the first tremors of a shockwave that would rock its foundations. The disease that had claimed the lives of an estimated 600 gay men in just two years now had a name: AIDS. In the coming decade it would kill tens of thousands more.
Robert Bland in August 1983, shortly before he died of AIDS complications in Los Angeles. Photo: Daal Praderas.
To combat this stubborn killer, gays and lesbians would organize militant protest groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation. They would create new definitions of intimacy and set the boundaries of safe sex. They would raise millions of dollars for medical research and create a social service infrastructure to care for the ill and dying. And they would craft messages, in bold and simple language, to educate young people in hopes of saving the next generation.
But all that lay in the future. In the spring of 1983 the gay community had yet to coalesce in response to the AIDS crisis. The owners of many gay bathhouses refused to give their customers information about the risks of AIDS, fearful of losing business. Gay men and lesbians argued over political priorities, straining fragile alliances. Gay men argued among themselves over the limits of sexual freedom. The media fueled the flames of ignorance and fear, reporting that the “gay plague” was now spreading to heterosexuals. The Reagan administration simply remained silent.
This one-hour documentary I produced for Pacifica Radio in June 1983 examines the conflicting currents of fear, greed, despair and denial that confronted the gay community in the early years of the AIDS epidemic. And it documents the first stirrings of political activism and personal courage that would transform the community in the years ahead. Listen to the full program:
Produced for a gay audience, “I Will Survive” was broadcast on Los Angeles public radio station KPFK 90.7 FM on June 19, 1983 as part of a day of programming celebrating gay pride month. David Fradkin (1955–1997) and Ken Miller (1950–2001) assisted with research, reporting and production.
Before the Deluge
For its time, the documentary is a fairly clear-eyed look at the emerging AIDS epidemic. It correctly emphasizes the medical consensus that a virus is the cause of the disease, and urges education, personal responsibility and collective action as the tools for fighting it.
The main message we were trying to deliver was that we, as a community, couldn’t let panic, grief or denial carry the day. We were, at that point, still living “before the deluge” and we needed to come together and fight for our lives. Researcher Ken Miller (whose brother is a physician) and I spent hours slogging through the medical journal articles, trying to understand the state of the science and its implications. You only needed to consider the ease with which sexually transmitted diseases spread among gay men to realize that the outlook was grim if we were now facing a sexually transmitted killer virus.
It’s hard to appreciate now, but the gay and lesbian community was really at a crossroads. Without the leadership of people like Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, Harry Britt, Bobbi Campbell, Matt Redman and others, the suffering would have been far worse, the toll far greater. And you know how terrible it was. I remember wondering in the early days, in 1981 and 1982, whether any of us would survive. Titling the documentary “I Will Survive” was an act of false bravado as much as it was a hat tip to Bobbi Campbell, who wore a button emblazoned with that message.
Although we lost far too many, the LGBT community has survived and, in many ways, thrived since those dark days. In 1983 there was scarcely time to mourn the friends we lost. Today, as I remember their courage, I’m filled with gratitude rather than grief.