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And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

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By the time Rock Hudson's death in 1985 alerted all America to the danger of the AIDS epidemic, the disease had spread across the nation, killing thousands of people and emerging as the greatest health crisis of the 20th century. America faced a troubling question: What happened? How was this epidemic allowed to spread so far before it was taken seriously? In answering these questions, Shilts weaves the disparate threads into a coherent story, pinning down every evasion and contradiction at the highest levels of the medical, political, and media establishments.

Shilts shows that the epidemic spread wildly because the federal government put budget ahead of the nation's welfare; health authorities placed political expediency before the public health; and scientists were often more concerned with international prestige than saving lives. Against this backdrop, Shilts tells the heroic stories of individuals in science and politics, public health and the gay community, who struggled to alert the nation to the enormity of the danger it faced. And the Band Played On is both a tribute to these heroic people and a stinging indictment of the institutions that failed the nation so badly.

660 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 1987

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About the author

Randy Shilts

17 books160 followers
Randy Shilts was a highly acclaimed, pioneering gay American journalist and author. He worked as a reporter for both The Advocate and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as for San Francisco Bay Area television stations.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,614 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,963 reviews294k followers
June 14, 2017
The gay plague got covered only because it finally had struck people who counted, people who were not homosexuals.

1) This is an absolutely astounding piece of investigative journalism. Shilts has dug deep into the history of the AIDs crisis: from its very early origins in Africa, being passed around by a lack of medical hygiene, to the bath houses of New York and San Francisco. He has provided a comprehensive, horrific history of the disease, its victims, and the uncaring government who allowed it to spread out of control.

2) Shilts is an AMAZING writer. I'm interested in the history of diseases, but then I'm interested in the history of a lot of things. Technology, art, religion, democracy... being interested in something is one thing; being able to hold my attention for 600+ pages of non-fiction is quite another.

But Shilts did not have a problem. His writing style feels almost like you are reading a dark, dramatic novel as he paints a vivid picture of every scene. It's so very compelling. This simple truth seems obvious and yet it is easy to forget amid a sea of fantasy pageturners-- reality is so much more haunting and terrible than fiction.

3) This book exposes the homophobia, overt or otherwise, that allowed AIDs to become a disaster. Homophobia is not surprising to me in this often shitty world we live in, and yet I still managed to be shocked at the way medical professionals, government officials, and the media repeatedly failed the gay victims at the centre of this crisis.

We have teams around the world whose job it is to quickly isolate and stop infectious diseases before they can become epidemics. Shilts uses Legion Fever (or Legionnaires' disease) as an example. When there was an outbreak of Legion Fever in 1976, the government poured money into it and the CDC acted quickly to stop its spread. However, AIDs was not offered the same treatment.

Despite the fact that more people were dying from AIDs and it was spreading much more quickly, many medical professionals refused to acknowledge it, the media would not talk about gay sex, and some people even outright suggested it was the wrath of god, punishing gay men for immoral behaviour. It is heartbreaking how many gay men, as well as others, were allowed to die because of a fear of the word "homosexual".

What must it be like to be diagnosed with a disease and discover that the government refuses to care about finding the cause, or a cure, for it? I can't even imagine. It is horrific.

4) I recommend this book to everyone. It's a fast-paced, fascinating, and awful read that looks at a very recent area of history. If there was ever a perfect argument against bigotry, it is this disastrous way the AIDs epidemic was handled in its wake, and the millions of people who have died because of it.

I also recommend checking out the movie "The Normal Heart" for a more visual experience of this history.

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Profile Image for Melody.
2,629 reviews262 followers
December 4, 2013
This book brought back the early 80s in hallucinatory detail. I remember when we first heard about Gay Cancer, and how hard it was to get any decent information. I remember when the world got wobbly and my friends were dying and it seemed like nobody cared. I was quite certain that, given my penchant for fey boys, I wouldn't be around to see the turn of the century. I vividly remember making up file folders for 1989 for my job and thinking that the ones for 1990 would be in someone else's handwriting. It was a scary time that was made electric for me by Shilts and Larry Kramer. I bought this book the week it came out, and it changed my view of everything. Absolutely everything.

Reading it again some 20-odd years later brought back the anger and the sadness and that helpless, blistering rage. This is the book that made me understand viscerally that me and mine mattered nothing to the government. It's also where I learned that the best intentions can get snarled in the weeds- that people passionately devoted to an idea will serve that idea beyond all reason, that profit comes before people, and that it always takes a movie star to catch the public's imagination.

All the mistakes, all the missteps are herein laid out in letters of fire. The Cassandras, dismissed, reviled and hushed at the time, are sadly proven right. Reagan is illuminated in the harsh light of retrospect and found wanting.

A whole generation vanished because the health officials didn't want to talk about anal sex, the blood banks didn't want to admit they should have tested the blood, the gay rights organizations couldn't conceive of closing the baths, the government couldn't fund the scientists, the scientists couldn't let go of their need to be the first, the medical journals couldn't suspend business-as-usual, the FDA couldn't understand that double blind studies were inappropriate in the face of an epidemic of this magnitude, and on and on and on. A monumental comedy of errors that could so easily have been prevented.

This book should be required reading for anyone entering any sort of health care profession or who might be a health care consumer some day. Infuriating, well-written, and tragically still timely. It could happen again.

This book changed my life. I wish it hadn't had to.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
795 reviews3,628 followers
May 31, 2020
The book is mainly focused on the many tragic protagonists and politics, not so much dealing with science, and brings a new level of acts of inhumanity of a government against its own people to light. I mean, they called it gay cancer, that kind of sounds like a disease of the male, gynecological disorder, or childhood disease, implying and connoting that it´s no problem for all other groups or the general public. Reagan was no good person.

It´s Big History at it´s best, combining all elements with a focus on telling the story through its protagonists, giving a prime example of how it should not be done and making one feel stunned regarding that nowadays (2020) many democratic governments are filled with the same indoctrinated persons. The only difference may be that they can´t openly act out their misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., they sometimes even don´t realize by themselves and deem themselves to be good people, and hide it behind economic and political pop pseudoscience that indirectly legitimates them to do things that lead to the problems.

If it would have only been the state, but the health care sector, the doctors, blood banks not testing, everyone was on the bandwagon effect train of homophobia those days and helped to prevent an intelligent solution to avoid a sexually transmitted, at the time always deadly, epidemic. The most illogical and disturbing fact is that the world of medicine treated normal diseases, the media could talk about and got funding by the government to prevent catastrophes, because it were child friendly, normal, prime time people who suffered.

That it are often single tragedies like Rock Hudsons´ death that lead to a change in public opinion, has a dark and a light sight, a sweet and bitter taste. It´s great that single individuals, be it through their tragic death or nowadays with their activism to tell more about problems than the pseudo education system can do, as it shows that really everyone can change the world. It´s dark and gritty because it shows that as long no megastar talks about it or a white, rich, person suffers from it, the problem is camouflaged, downplayed, or seen as „their“ problem, plague, or, worst, own fault.

But as many times before (and today), as long as the disease just affected the poor, discriminated, or, in this case, gay people, it could be even interpreted as a punishment sent by higher entities and nothing one wanted to talk about. So no money for cures, no coverage, a cloak of silence until it escalates so much that it can´t be ignored anymore because the few objective newspapers keep nagging with their insidious and penetrant questions and proved facts everyone else ignored. So now, with years of unnecessary delay, the ministers and bureaucrats are of course trying to get started and help the population and today the governments aren´t that ignorant and inhuman anymore? No, of course not.

It´s one of the worst medical problems, because as long as the policy doesn´t change from neoliberal stupidity to an ecosocial Nordic model, the majority of the poor and uninsured population keeps spreading the virus. And we are talking about a rich, industrialized country like the US here, the conditions in the Southern hemisphere are so terrible that it´s reasonable for politics and media to avoid any talk about it. Developing countries prisons and rudimentary health care systems are breeding grounds for a mixture of all kind of multi resistant superbugs, but there is (still) no money to make with finding a cure as long as the problem hasn´t sufficiently infected enough Westerners to be interesting for big pharma, not to speak of any government or malaria or neglected tropical diseases.

One of the most impressing acts of incompetence was the governments attempt to close the bathhouses to stop the spread in hope of a kind of
„out of sight, out of mind, no problem anymore“ motivation and ignoring the discrimination leading to the closeted problem, missing research and funding for cures, instrumentalized science, the missing publicly funded health care system, and the mixture of hate and prejudice floating trough the administration. It´s so much easier to blame any kind of minority using blatant lies or just ignore the problem than to self reflect.

It´s difficult to find something that is close to letting a disease, those extreme worldwide spread could have easily been prevented, circulate in the own population until it grows to one of the worst plagues in human history because of conservatism, stupidity, hate, racism, and bigotry. A new paragraph would have to be added to the international human rights violation acts, possibly to the already existing laws regarding the negligent and wanton spread of epidemics and pandemics, but referring to the special circumstances of the impossibility to deal with it with quarantines or vaccines (still).

I´ve read many bad things about kings, god emperors, presidents, and stuff, but I can´t find similar examples, because it didn´t end, as in the past, with the atrocities like war, genocide, or slavery, but will continue forever with the worst consequences for the poor people in the Southern hemisphere as they won´t even get the vaccine if it´s finally developed. Just as they don´t get the drugs making the lives for wealthy, infected people in industrialized countries bearable to normal nowadays.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:

If you want to get angry:
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
October 27, 2019
Alternately thrilling and harrowing, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic chronicles the epidemic’s early years. The work begins at the height of gay liberation on the bicentennial, a few years before the outbreak of AIDS in America, and ends in 1985 with the announcement of Rock Hudson’s death from the virus. Along the way Shilts documents medical researchers’ and gay activists’ embattled attempts to understand the virus and curb its spread in the face of public indifference and governmental neglect. The extraordinarily detailed work of social history’s drawn from Shilts’ reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle on the crisis as it unfolded, and the contents are artfully compiled. Individual stories of groundbreaking researchers and persons with AIDS are skillfully developed over the course of the book, which moves at a breakneck pace, and embedded within a multifaceted analysis of gay life in New York and San Francisco.
Profile Image for Lisa.
124 reviews55 followers
January 7, 2022
I waited a few days to write this review so I could let it all sink in, and I’m still struggling to find the words to describe how impactful this book is. This is an amazing piece of investigative reporting about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The suffering is heartbreaking, the levels of bureaucracy and politicking is infuriating, and the bigotry and apathy towards the virus is disturbing.

The book was published in 1987, so the coverage spans from the original cases of the virus that started showing up in the late 1970s up through 1987 when the United States was still lacking a coordinated public response to the epidemic. Since I was only a small child in the early 1980s, my understanding of the AIDS epidemic was based on the general US perception of the virus after the book was published, mainly from what I learned in health class or saw on TV shows. This book made me realize how little I actually understood about the course of the epidemic and how many people had to fight so hard for me to even hear AIDS talked about in a health class. The author’s reporting on the prioritization of politics and ego over public health during the AIDS epidemic in the US is unsettling, but it ended up being a particularly timely and enlightening read given the current COVID pandemic.

As you can probably guess, this book is in no way a light read. On top of the heavy emotional content, there is also a lot to keep track of in terms of people across the many politicians, activists, and medical professionals that the story follows. There’s also a lot of epidemiological terminology to understand and various concurrent events to follow related to legislation, activism, and personal stories. But I loved every minute of it. My advice is to take your time with the book, I honestly felt like I got something out of every paragraph. And let’s not even talk about the research rabbit holes that were sparked while reading the book. Since it was published in 1987, I kept taking breaks so I could research what happened to various people or story threads post-publication.

Everyone should know this story, and the author does an excellent job of telling it. This is one of those books I’m going to be thinking about and talking about for years to come.
Profile Image for laaaaames.
524 reviews98 followers
December 12, 2008
This book is really important, considering:

1. We are likely not safe from another random crazy deadly virus that will catch us offguard.

2. You have probably underestimated what an asshole Reagan was.

3. You might be going to see Milk soon and would like to read of some of what happened after him in SF politics.

4. Prop 8 effing passed, proving our society has farther to come than perhaps we realized.

Points deducted because apparently the Patient Zero story is a bit hinky. Also it's often a lot to keep plodding through it. Still worthwhile, especially as a historical document.
Profile Image for Tamora Pierce.
Author 152 books83.3k followers
June 9, 2014
This has to be the most maddening book I've ever read, and that includes books on the Vietnam and Second World Wars. As AIDS arrives in the world in the late 1970s, it strikes Africa first, then the American gay scene. Shilts documents the search for the virus in all its muddled, politicized, under-funded, disregarded insanity, during which gay men died quickly or slowly, without drugs that did more than eased their passing for years, in their homes or in facilities that had no more notion of how to care for them than they did, cared for by each other and, slowly, by medical personnel who knew they might be risking their own lives.

Here in the U.S. local, state, and national government issued claims of aggressive pursuit of the disease while doing the opposite. Agencies supposedly committed to the discovery and treatment of the new disease fought one another for credit for any advances in treatment and in finding the virus. Pharmaceutical companies kept to the years-long proving process for drugs which might buy years of life for sufferers, including seeking out pools of subjects who could get placebos, when in the case of this disease the receipt of the placebo was certain death, instead of the possibility of a few more years with an experimental drug. Doctors, blood banks, and drug companies vied to make money as gays, drug users, and recipients of blood transfusions who got blood while blood banks argued against testing blood for the disease because it was expensive died.

And the politicians who could have created hospices, units in hospitals, and information programs, did nothing.

It's a brilliant book about a heartbreaking time. HBO's movie "A Normal Heart" was written in 1985 by activist Larry Kramer, and you'll recognize some of his characters here: this is the story of what went on before, after, and in the rest of the world. If you're prone to fits of rage, you might want to warn those around you as you read. I lived in NYC during this time, and I had a lot of gay friends. I knew they were being ignored. I didn't know it was this pervasive, or this completely and utterly inhuman.
Profile Image for Katie.
174 reviews107 followers
December 24, 2007
If you're seeking a comprehensive history of the AIDS epidemic, look no further. Written as a detective story, this must read book covers all aspects of the disease, from history, to journalism, to politics, to people. Randy Shilts, in his thorough investigative report, highlights the many blunders along the way, blunders that are unbelievable in retrospect. It is not an anti-Republican rant, rather it is a very fair assessment of the collective failure of all entities involved. Because the individuals initially infected were mostly gay or drug users, the public was extremely apathetic. Due to the transmission methods (sodomy, IV drugs, etc.), AIDS was seen as an "embarrassing" disease and was ignored by the media and government officials (federal AND local, Dems AND Reps, Feinstein, Reagan, and many more). Gay activists considered calls for safe sex to be homophobic slurs, scientists were uncooperative and only interested in earning the Nobel Prize, and blood banks were only concerned with the bottom line, refusing to admit that their supplies were contaminated. The "Patient Zero" theory, in which, one extremely promiscuous man knowingly spread the disease to MANY men in several regions, is touched upon. In addition to the disasters, the author also cites many heroes, including Rock Hudson (the first celebrity who went public, making the cause more relevant to the general population) and C. Everett Koop (Reagan's surgeon general who published the first realistic and understandable report on the insidious disease, disregarding common "pc-isms"). Shilts himself was infected with the virus while writing the book, but he did not want to bias the book by getting tested before he was finished. This should be required reading for all; while it appears daunting at 600 pages, it is extremely interesting, well researched, and worth the time spent.
Profile Image for Heather.
295 reviews103 followers
September 22, 2018
This book took me a long time to read. I could only read small bits at a time. It was both informative and heartbreaking. And it made me think of friends I've lost. But other friends of mine actually lived through this time. It was a complete travesty how long it took this country to come to action against AIDS.
Profile Image for Larry.
86 reviews4 followers
September 17, 2011
I recall being so incensed at the failure of common decency across every part of the 'establishment' spectrum that I think I can trace much of my continuing skepticism of our political process directly to Randy's work.

I actually think this book should be required reading at college level for any political science class that is examining the flaws of what our system can become. Eisenhower http://youtu.be/8y06NSBBRtY was right in his grave warnings about the danger inherent in the 'military industrial complex' - but even more so about the transfer of power 'whether sought or unsought' that could come to pass. Not only in the military industrial complex but perhaps also in the Health Industrial complex - where, as this book so chillingly portrays, the reality is those in power seek to protect that status quo, even if conscious evil intent is absent.

If you never read this and you want a very real, somewhat raw, but remarkable account of what happened in those times, you would be very hard pressed to find better. And yes, for my conservative friends there may be a bit of a 'liberal' perspective. However, far more importantly it speaks from a human perspective - which frankly transcends ideology and as I write this in 2011 seems far too absent from our discussion of costs and deficits and other such fictions. The real truth is far too many people are suffering and this country has had a long and proud history of standing up, whatever the cause of human suffering is, to make it better. I wait for us, with faith we still can, to come to our collective senses once again.

This book was a bright light on injustice ... where is such a light today?
Profile Image for Nev.
1,058 reviews139 followers
April 21, 2020
If you want to be infuriated as fuck and saddened to your core, read this book. And the Band Played On shows how AIDS was able to spread unchecked for so many years during the early days of the epidemic. It highlights the stories of different people who died of AIDS as well as the doctors, researchers, and politicians working to combat the epidemic.

While this book did make me sad to see the stories of so many different people who died of AIDS, this book mostly made me so incredibly angry. Whether it was in the beginning, before it was called AIDS, and only seen as a “gay disease” so most of the population didn’t care or the government wasn’t giving enough money to organizations. Or the blood banks refusing to admit that people could be infected through transfusions because they didn’t want to lose money. Or the bath houses refusing to see that their establishments were environments that allowed AIDS to flourish, again because they didn’t want to lose money. I just wanted to travel back in time and grab these people and shake them while screaming "OH MY GOD PEOPLE ARE FUCKING DYING. DO SOMETHING"

I wanted to read this book because most of my knowledge of the AIDS epidemic came from seeing it portrayed in fictionalized ways in books or movies. I’m definitely glad that I read this book because now I feel like I have so much more of an understanding of what happened to let the situation get so out of control. However this was a very difficult reading experience. The subject matter of the book is so upsetting that I took a year long break in the middle of the book before finishing it recently.

Coming in at just over 600 pages, this book is definitely daunting to pick up. Especially because it deals with medical research and various political figures. Randy Shilts did a good job of making all the medical and political information easy to understand. Also, there are so many different people featured in this book from all around the world so it might seem like it would be difficult to remember who all the different people are. But Shilts makes sure to reintroduce everyone with their position frequently, which makes the story easy to follow.

I’d recommend reading this book if you’re interested in learning more about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. But be warned, it’s a harrowing journey.
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 2 books10 followers
March 13, 2011
I didn't finish this. Reads like bad journalism. The story is, of course, tragic, but the various accounts ring false like the stories that actors tell. For example, we find: "On a hunch, Gottlieb twisted some arms to convince pathologists to take a small scraping of the patient's lung tissue through a nonsurgical maneuver." OK, so the author isn't a doctor, but 1. pathologists don't do endobronchial biopsies, pulmonologists do, 2.nobody has to twist a pulmonologists arm to do an endobronchial biopsy or for a pathologist to interpret one, 3.I was around when AIDS showed up and we were fascinated by it and were eager to get that material, 4.Since this little sentence has things in it that I know are false, what is the author saying with it - is he building a case? Many other stories ring false and have doubtless been spun somehow, after all this book has a message and the author is the man with a hammer. I am reminded of the oft noticed phenomenon that when you have personal knowledge of a newspaper story, you are startled by its errors (for example, if you were the one interviewed), and then realize that the stories that you know nothing about are probably similarly inaccurate. The story of AIDS deserves better than this.
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
425 reviews40 followers
May 16, 2020
This was not one of the books I expected to read when the pandemic began, but it is possibly the most enlightening one that I finished. As I write this, the United States is attempting to “reopen”.

A large segment of the population is worried about the economy and demanding their rights. This group believes that the efforts to control or prevent the spread of COVID 19 is a violation of their hard fought for Constitutional Rights.

Oh how this echoes back to the 1980s and the AIDS Epidemic!

I cannot tell you how many sections of this book mirrored what is going on in America today.

In the 80’s, it was the gay community protesting the closure of bathhouses/gay bars and the medical experts telling them how to screw. Today, it’s protests over lock-downs and wearing of a mask.

In the 80’s, it was the gay community not trusting the medical experts to tell them the truth about the disease, today its conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory.

Hell, in the 80’s, it was Anthony Fauci making headlines, today it is Anthony Fauci making headlines!

The parallel’s to the 80s and today are frightenly similar, but the fact that it is the “gay disease” really helps to put it in perspective. America’s views on homosexuality has changed drastically over the past 33 years. While “coming out” may still be a thing, it is nothing like it was 33 years ago when this book was written.

The world described in this book is almost unimaginable, except I remember it, which makes the contrast between the 80s and today so stark.

In the 80s, laws existed making sodomy illegal, today laws exist protecting same sex marriage.

In the 80s, being identified as gay would almost certainly end a professional career/relations, today most people know and work with somebody who is openly gay.

In the 80s, a Republican President did not listen to his scientific advisors, today… some things never change.

In the 80s, the Republican president tried to diminish the role of the CDC because he didn't like what it said, today.... yeah, I know.

But it is in the similarities and differences that this book comes alive and becomes pertinent to today’s world. I could talk about this book more, but there is one last thought that stuck with me from this book.

The gay community is essentially the same as the non-gay community---except they are gay. They grew up in the same churches, schools, social groups, etc. They grew up and went to the same colleges. There are gay Eagle Scouts, elected officials, postal workers, accountants, etc. Homosexuals literally grew up around us---but, as highlighted in this book, developed a distrust for the Government/world around them.

This distrust reflects a lifetime of experiences. If the gay community struggled to trust based upon lifetime of experiences, how much harder is it for women/minorities after generations of experiences?

Strong 5 Star review
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,180 followers
May 1, 2020
The story of these first five years of AIDS in America is a drama of national failure, played out against a backdrop of needless death.

Though this book has been on my list for years, it took a pandemic to get me to finally pick it up. I am glad I did. And the Band Played On is both a close look at one medical crisis and an examination of how humans react when faced with something that does not fit into any of our mental boxes—not our ideas of civil liberty, not our categories of people, and not our notions of government responsibility. As such, this book has a lot to teach us, especially these days.

Randy Shilts was working as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This position allowed him to track the spread of this disease from nearly the very beginning. Putting this story together was a work of exemplary journalism, involving a lot of snooping and a lot more interviewing. What emerges is a blow-by-blow history of the crisis as it unfolded in its first five years, from 1980-85. And Shilts’s lens is broad: he examines the gay community, the epidemiologists, the press, the blood banks, the medical field, the research scientists, and the politicians. After all, a pandemic is not just caused by a virus; it is the sum of a virus and a society that allows it to spread.

The overarching theme of this book is individual heroism in the face of institutional failure. There are many admirable people in these pages: epidemiologists trying to raise the alert, doctors struggling to treat a mysterious ailment, gay activists trying to educate their communities, and a few politicians who take the disease seriously. But the list of failures is far longer: from the scientists squabbling over claims of priority, to the academic bureaucracies squashing funding requests, to the blood bankers refusing to test their blood, to the government—on every level—failing to take action or set aside sufficient funding.

A lot of these failures were due simply to the sorts people who normally caught AIDS: gay men and intravenous drug users. Because both of these groups were (and to some extent still are) social pariahs, major newspapers simply did not cover the epidemic. This was crucial in many respects, since it gave the impression that it simply was not worth worrying about (the news sets the worry agenda, after all), giving politicians an excuse to do nothing and giving people at risk an excuse not to take any precautions. The struggle in the gay community over how to proceed was particularly vexing, since it was their very efforts to preserve their sexual revolution which cost time and lives. As we are seeing nowadays, balancing civil liberties and disease control is not an easy thing.

But what made these failure depressing, rather than simply frustrating, was the constant drumbeat of death. So many young men lost their lives to this disease, dying slow and agonizing deaths while baffled doctors tried to treat them. When these deaths were occurring among gay men and drug users, the silence of the country was deafening. It was only when the disease showed the potential to infect heterosexuals and movie stars—people who matter—that society suddenly spurred itself into action. This seems to be a common theme to pandemics: society only responds when “normal” people are at risk.

Another common theme to pandemic is the search for a panacea. At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there were many claims of “breakthroughs” and promises of vaccines. But we still have neither a cure nor a vaccine. Fortunately, treatment for HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically since this book was written, when a diagnosis meant death. Pills are now available (Pre-Exposure Prophylactic, or PrEP) which, if taken daily, can reduce the chance of contracting HIV through sex by almost 99% percent. And effective anti-viral therapies exist for anyone who has been infected, greatly extending lifespans.

Unfortunately, these resources are mostly available in the “developed” world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where resources are scarce, the disease is still growing, taking many lives in the process. Once again, a disease is allowed to ravage in communities that the world can comfortably ignore.

One day, a hardworking journalist will write a similar book about the current coronavirus crisis and our institutions’ response to it. And I am sure there will be just as much failure to account for. But there will also be just as much heroism.
Profile Image for Sasha.
32 reviews4 followers
February 16, 2009
I think everyone should read this book. Seriously. Randy Shilts presents the epic tale of the beginning of the AIDs epidemic through the eyes of health officials, scientists, doctors, politicians, patients, and the media. It is an incredible story of how America willfully ignored the spread of AIDs until it was too late to stem. He uses all the interviews and research that he did as a journalist for the SF Chronicle who covered the epidemic full time for years. The book travels all over the world in a careful timeline starting with the very first AIDs patients and ending in 1988.

One of the most affecting parts for me was reading about the partisanship, bickering, and politics that overcame good science and public health decisions. If feels too similar to the debates we have been having about the environment and global warming.

It may sound like a dry read, but it is completely enthralling. Equal parts medical detective story and train wreck. I missed my busstop while reading it and ended up by the side of a highway in the hinterlands. Now *that's* a recommendation.
Profile Image for Kater Cheek.
Author 34 books261 followers
July 12, 2012
This book has just about everything I like in a non-fiction. It's got science, medicine, high stakes, historical significance, and modern relevance. Trying to figure out why it wasn't more compelling to me, I had to focus on the 6th word in the title: Politics.

This novel is about AIDS, but it's much more about people than about science. Shilts has a huge cast of characters, from French researchers to gay activists to scientists with the NIH and CDC. He tracks the disease from Fire Island nightclub-hoppers in New York to sexy French-Canadian flight attendants in San Francisco. The aphorism among those who try to gain money for non profits is that no one cares about a thousand starving people in Africa, but they will care about one starving child. Along those lines, people don't care about 20,000 dead, but they might care about one dying person.

I might have cared more about one dying person that a slough of them as well. The main problem I had with this book is that there were too many names to keep track of. That might sound funny from a person who loved George R.R.Martin's dense tomes, but in high fantasy, everyone fights for their lives, and some win and some die. In this novel, some people died, and others bickered about funding.

The problem, I think, is that this book lacked a plot. That may seem an unfair accusation to level at a non-fiction book, but every book needs a plot. In the Ghost Map, a book about cholera, the scope was "how is this disease caused" and the span of time covered its outbreak. I keep wondering, what was this book about? Was it about the epidemic? If so, it ended too soon (in span of time). It should have concluded with the current numbers of victims in Africa, and how education and behavior change altered the patterns of contagion in America. Was it about how gay culture in America was altered by the epidemic? If so, it should have maybe touched on how gay rights has changed as a result of the epidemic. Was it about the disease itself? If so, it didn't really delve too deeply into how HIV causes AIDS.

Shiltz focused almost primarily upon the political aspects. Funding funding funding. Who got funding, who didn't? Who got credit for discovering this and that, who didn't? Who didn't want to be tainted by association with the "gay" disease? Here's a spoiler for those who don't know: the US government twiddled its thumbs and looked the other way while thousands and thousands of Americans died, because those Americans weren't heterosexual. Here's another spoiler: thousands of gays became infected because they were not willing to hear straight people tell them to stop having sex. The AIDS epidemic was a tragedy beyond Shakespearian propoprtions.

But Schiltz left some crucial things out. He mentioned the fight over whether or not to close the bathhouses, but no one ever mentioned when the researchers discovered that AIDS can be prevented by condoms. That seems a huge oversight. Maybe it happened after the book was published. He chronicled the contagion and the death from AIDS of many gay men, which should have been compelling, but their tales got lost amid the slough of other names thrown at me.

The other problem I had with this is that it felt too long. It felt 30-40% longer than it should have been. That's probably because of the ratios of how he dealt with the different aspects. I like science, history, and tense mysteries (discovery of a disease can be a very tense mystery) Politics are okay, but only if they talk about people I'm familiar with, like the Lannisters. I wanted to read a book that was 50% science 30% history 20% human drama, and a smidge politics. What I got was a book that was 70% politics (about people I've never heard of, mostly) 10% human drama, 20% history, and only trace of science.

That may not sound fair to Shiltz, but I also felt unfairly treated, when I bought a book that seemed like it would be a tense drama about one of the most important epidemics in the 20th century, and it ended up making me yawn and wonder if I should finish reading it.

I recommend this for people who like politics more than science, and anyone who wants a well-rounded understanding of American history.
Profile Image for David.
638 reviews118 followers
October 7, 2017

You're screaming "It's AIDS, you dumb fucks!" for the first third, "Just close the goddamn bathouses!" for the middle, and "Where's the fucking beef?!" at Ronald Reagan for the last third.

And then the liver spots on the back of your hand start to look like KS.

Fascinating, heart-breaking ... not our finest hour.

Who knew that San Franciscans thought New Yorkers were so closet-y?

"'We've got to show each other and the unfriendly world that we've got more than looks, brains, talent, and money. We've got guts too, plus an awful lot of heart.'"

"Other doctors were shooting up mice with semen to show that sperm actually was causing the immune suppression."

"By NIH budget calculations, the life of a gay man was worth about one-quarter that of a member of the American Legion ... the joke amongst gay congressional staffers was that NIH stood for Not Interested in Homosexuals."

"According to one story, one tryst of Gaetan's was so furious when he heard that Gaetan had AIDS that he tracked the former airline steward down to confront him. By the time they were done talking, Gaetan had charmed the man back into bed."

"Early Tuesday morning, Shands Hospital (Florida) loaded MacDonald in a private Learjet air ambulance with a doctor and a nurse. Although the plane cost $14,000 to charter, it was a cheaper alternative to the $100,000 in hospital bills an AIDS patient typically accumulated. ... The ambulance stopped at 10th Street (San Francisco), double-parked, and (MacDonald) was quickly bundled onto a gurney. The ambulance driver and a second man carried the stretcher to the second floor offices of the AIDS Foundation and set the stretcher on the floor. A nurse walking with them hurriedly put down a few plastic bags containing all the young man's possessions. Then, they turned and walked out, leaving the gaunt man on the floor. ... San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein immediately denounced the transfer as "outrageous and inhumane" and demanded that the governor of Florida investigate the dumping."

"In her only departure from her prepared text, (Reagan's Secretary for Health) added, 'We must conquer AIDS before it affects the heterosexual population and the general population ... We have a very strong interest in stopping AIDS before it spreads outside the risk groups, before it becomes an overwhelming problem.'"

"Republicans pointed out that California was spending more on AIDS than every other state in the nation combined, and that the western Republican was approving far more AIDS funds than the eastern Democrats."

"In the strangest twist to English AIDS history, the guide to British aristocracy, Burke's Peerage, announced that, in an effort to preserve 'the purity of the human race,' it would not list any family in which any member was known to have AIDS. 'We are worried that AIDS may not be a simple infection, even if conveyed in an unusual way,' its publishing editor said, 'but an indication of a genetic defect.'"
Profile Image for V. Briceland.
Author 5 books65 followers
June 7, 2014
Revisiting Randy Shilts' groundbreaking history of the early day of the AIDS epidemic in the United States after my first reading of it some twenty-five years ago was a little bit of an eye-opening experience. I still admire Shilts' month-by-month analysis of how public health officials, the research science industry, the gay population affected most directly by the plague, and the government at both the local and federal level responded—or in most cases, failed to respond—to the burgeoning threat. His almost cinematic scope makes the work eminently readable, while the inherent drama in the ever-increasing numbers of people felled by the virus keeps the focus as tight as any summer action thriller.

I'm struck on this re-read, however, by some of Shilts' uglier and more manipulative stunts while posturing as an objective reporter to the unfolding of events. Sure, he's angry, and he's quick to point fingers and spread blame throughout the book. That stance is understandable—and frankly, there are plenty of people and institutions that deserve the blame. When it comes to the gay community in particular, however, Shilts indulges in some incredibly guileful rhetoric to divide that community between the good gays and the disgusting, bad whores who ruined everything for everyone else.

He's not really all that subtle about it, either; the bad gays are not only sluttish bathhouse habitués, but are drawn in broad and villainous strokes as amyl nitrite addicts who all, to a soul, indulge in the vicious sports of fist-fucking and urinating upon each other. (The good gays in the book, in case you wonder, all very chastely are shown to lie next to each other upon their beds without having sex, and if they do, they "make love" after they confess their high school-like "crushes" on each other.) The bad gays populating the bathhouses and dark alleys are all insanely beautiful as well. They may have a "sensual charisma," or may prefer to be "the only charismatic guy in the room," or they're at (God help us) "the top of Manhattan's ziggurat of beauty." In fact, Shilts' biggest villain in the book walks around in chapter after chapter, flipping his hair and twiddling his mustache while smirking and thinking to himself in scenes that are clearly fictionalized (though in an afterword, Shilts claims to have fictionalized nothing) that he's "the prettiest one in the room."

The hyperbole Shilts employs in his obsession with "the royalty of gay beauty and . . . the stars of the homosexual jet set" is weirdly off-putting, this time around; he writes almost from the disgruntled perspective of the ugly kid laughed out of the high school junior prom. Worse yet, his demonization of hair-flipping Gaetan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant he dubbed "Patient Zero" shows a callous zest for scapegoating instead of any kind of journalistic integrity. It's commonly accepted now that Patient Zero (who may or may not have been Dugas) was not the first person in the U.S. affected by AIDS, nor did he bring it to the country—yet Shilts is all too happy to write scene after scene of Dugas literally leaping out the bathhouse shadows, Boogey Man-style, to frighten its denizens with his Karposi's Sarcoma lesions after he's infected them all.

During the book's publicity tour, Shilts acceded to the publisher's requests to emphasize the Dugas story in his book's publicity; whether enthusiastically or not, he became a willing accessory to the conviction of the dead man without much of a trial. And it's difficult to buy Shilts' tepid disclaimer that "Whether Gaetan Dugas actually was the person who brought AIDS to North America remains a question of debate and is ultimately unanswerable," several hundred pages into the book, when all along Shilts has depicted him relentlessly as the Freddy Kreuger of the Castro.

But then, Shilts is quick to laud those he admires and vilify anyone he finds faintly disagreeable. If someone is angry with public officials and speaks out rashly, and that someone happens to be Larry Kramer, he's lauded as a hero (and has all the good reviews of his play quoted in one big lump). If someone else gets angry and speaks out rashly in pretty much the same way, Shilts feels free to damn him as a "sociopath." In a maddening chapter on some phenomenon he calls "AIDSpeak," Shilts dismisses as obstructionist and dangerous anyone from the gay community who at any time brought up issues relating to patient confidentiality in testing for HIV, or who worried about conservative demands for quarantining or for mass HIV testing to root homosexuals from their jobs and communities . . . even though those concerns were quite legitimate, and in some ways still are.

Again, as someone who lived through those terrible years myself, I understand Shilts' anger at everyone who delayed AIDS research and relief funds to a suffering population, or whose politicking precluded good public health care. However, I don't think it journalistic, or even professional, to play fast and loose with reputations in the name of telling a good story, while pretending to be neutral—especially with the crystal-clear focus that only comes with hindsight. There was a point late in the book in which Shilts tsk-tsks at the notion that outsiders might mentally divide the gay population into "the fist-fuckers of Folsom Street" and "respectable middle class gays" . . . when that's exactly what he does himself from page one of his epic.

For all of its sweep and its pace and its moments of justified, righteous anger, And the Band Played On apportions its blame not all that even-handedly. It's decidedly unsubtle at choosing its villains, and it rides roughshod over anyone who dares to have been sexual or who has even a passing regard for civil liberties in a time of crisis. His narrative choices are a telling relic from the era he covers, perhaps, but it doesn't make for an entirely impartial historical inquiry.
Profile Image for Laini.
Author 6 books97 followers
August 2, 2009
There are a few things in my life that I can point to as having monumentally changed it.

#1, As a child raised by a racist mother, seeing the movie "Mississippi Burning" for the first time. I bawled my eyes out when I realized the extent of my ignorance of my black brothers and sisters and feeling utterly ashamed that I did not know more about the civil rights movement. Because someone I cared about had intentionally seen to it that I hadn't learned about it. Because watching Roots "wasn't necessary", and because MB was "just about a bunch of "n******".

#2, Reading "Backlash" by Susan Faludi and suddenly learning what it meant to stick up for myself as a woman, and to notice subtle differences between the sexes I had never been adult to pick up on before. It MADE me a feminist.

The last was reading this book. I picked it up December 2, 1995. I still remember the day. I was living and working in Dallas, and attending school in Denton. I felt bad that the AIDS quilt was in town and I was so swamped with fulltime school and fulltime work that I couldn't go view it. I picked up this book instead to educate myself about something I did not know enough about, and finished it a completely changed person.

These 3 events made me an unrepentant liberal, willing to fight for anyone being unfairly treated by government or individuals. The history of the disease is fascinating, but the early stories break your heart. And as everyone knows, the repercussions from AIDS have been massive. And the parts where Shilts discusses a partner watching his lover waste away (or not ALLOWED to watch him waste away by selfish, fundamentalist family members) are wrenching.

EVERYONE should be made to read this book. For anyone that doesn't understand the importance of gay issues, it should be required.

Profile Image for E. V.  Gross.
93 reviews22 followers
January 14, 2018
Tremendously thorough, very engaging, heartbreaking and furious. This was, sadly, a perfect book to read given the recent administration's demonstrated negligence and ineffectiveness in dealing with large-scale crises. Especially crises that are most devastating to vulnerable communities (i.e., everyone not white, cis, straight, Christian, male).
Profile Image for Sallie Dunn.
579 reviews39 followers
February 20, 2023

A long and detailed but extremely interesting accounting of how the AIDS crisis was handled in the USA. Needless to say, it was pretty awful. Reagan was elected in 1980 on a platform of reducing federal spending. So for most of the eight years he was in office, requests for funds for research and treatment were largely ignored. By early 1987, the only major Western industrialized nation that had not launched a coordinated education campaign with regards to AIDS was the United States.

In addition, the French beat the US in discovering and isolating the virus that causes AIDS, but a guy named Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute tried to take the credit almost a year later with the federal administration’s backing. The competition between the scientific entities (the NIAID, the CDC, and the NCI) in the US to claim who was doing the most was appalling.

And the blood banks were another serious screw up. Literally thousands of people had to die from receiving AIDS infected blood via transfusions before they would require testing of donated blood for AIDS antibodies.

This book was published in 1987; I was aware of it for a very long time and picked it up on a Kindle deal about five years ago. I’m glad I finally gave it its due attention. Sadly, the author who was the first openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, himself succumbed to AIDS in 1994.

ATY Goodreads Challenge 2023
Prompt #35 - A book with a school subject in the title
Profile Image for Barbara (The Bibliophage).
1,086 reviews148 followers
May 18, 2020
Originally published on my book blog, TheBibliophage.com.

Randy Shilts creates a tour de force history of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. It’s 600 pages of intense details, drawn from thousands of interviews with 900+ people. Despite being published in 1987, it remains one of the most definitive books on the history of AIDS and the gay community.

After college, Shilts moved to San Francisco, working as a journalist for The Advocate and The San Francisco Chronicle. This background gave him a unique seat at the side of history, as it was being made. And the Band is a compilation of various angles on the story, from personal to scientific to political.

Shilts examines what it felt like to be a gay man as the diagnosis of AIDS shifted from “gay cancer” to ARC to AIDS and HIV. He compares the attitudes of the New York gay community with that in San Francisco. And every description is full of so much heart and pain. It’s scope is vast, even as most chapters include poignant personal details.

My conclusions
I’m mad I waited so many decades to read this book. On the other hand, reading about an epidemic in the midst of a pandemic is a perfect moment. They’re different enough that it feels less stressful. And yes, there were times when the parallels were just too close.

As the story started, I loved learning exactly how the actual process of public health, epidemiology, and contact tracing work. The relevance! And then the book starts describing political wrangling in federal and multiple city governments. Shilts also lays bare the competition between the various scientific entities. All that felt pretty relevant to today, as my county government currently opposes our state government‘s pandemic response plan.

Because we have spent so long now with mostly effective treatment for HIV, it’s easy to forget how much of a death sentence AIDS was in the 1980s. If you lived with AIDS (or all of its other earlier names), you had opportunistic infection after infection. Life was not easy. There was no treatment, no AZT, no drug cocktails. And we can’t forget that even now, almost 40 years later, there is still no vaccine for AIDS. If that doesn’t give you pause as you contemplate COVID-19, I don’t know what will.

AIDS and the gay experience are themes I’m moved by, perhaps because of friends and family in that community. Or perhaps because I live with incurable chronic illness too. If you like medical drama, political wrangling, and a solid dose of history this is a great book. I’m giving it five stars.

This was a perfect pair to read with Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Other pairs would include The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by M.K. Czerwiec. An alternate memoir is Standing Strong: An Unlikely Sisterhood and the Court Case that Made History by Diane Reeve. This one tells the story of a man infected with HIV who purposely has sex with as many women as he can, and how the women joined together to stop him.
Profile Image for Sam Honeycutt.
45 reviews24 followers
June 27, 2012
If someone wished to write an how NOT to, he /she should follow how this book reads. The is an book that reminds me that the President of the United State never let the word AIDS leave his mouth until a friend of his Rock Hudson died of it. No one wanted to do anything about it as long as it was kept within the blacks, queers, and hemophiliacs. As long as it was GRID it didn't matter.
When they were told that it was bloodborne and there was a test for it, the American Red Cross didn't want to run the test because it cut into their profits. This is a great book and should be required reading before graduation.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
62 reviews
December 26, 2012
And the Band Played On is as important a tool in the teaching of American history as Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When crafting the required reading for students of American history, And the Band Played On needs to be added to that list.

For many of us, this epidemic started in our lifetime. We remember first hearing about it on the news, but not really knowing what it was about. We remember the misinformation and differing accounts of transmission. And we won’t forget the negligent disregard on the part of the Reagan administration and the people’s lives those choices affected.

Biblical. That is what I kept going through my head as I was reading this book. Just biblical.

Midway through the book (p. 278), the author identifies the early divisions between San Francisco gays and how this ideological divide stunted the response to the AIDS epidemic (I don't think it was unintentional that Shilts echoed the first line from the Book of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth . . ."):

"In the beginning, there were two major figures in San Francisco gay politics, Jim Foster [founder of the Alice B. Toklas Memorial Democratic Club] and Harvey Milk [founder of the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club] . . . Things would become far less polite later . . . the battle lines were drawn . . . It would be problematical to calculate how many San Franciscans would be infected with a deadly microbe and ultimately die because of political loyalty."

The "begetting" thing figures consistently throughout the Old Testament: God creates the world, then he creates Abraham, Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac begets Jacob, and so on and so on. And some people (myself included), when we read those sections, we glossed over them. They're boring. I mean, who cares after the 10th generation? But, those genealogies are strategically weaved in (both in the Bible and in And the Band Played On) to engender credibility by proving interconnections and, more importantly, illustrating a timeline of events.

At the end of various sections, Shilts will often recount the number of AIDS cases and the number of mortalities at that moment in time. In the early part of the book, the numbers are in the single and then double digits. As the years go on, those numbers jump to the hundreds, thousands, and then tens of thousands. At first, I marveled at the low numbers of infections and the novelty of this. Then those tallies begin to skyrocket and the story of AIDS moves faster than we can keep pace with (as of today, we have 33.4 million infected worldwide and 25 million mortalities).

I think about the younger people that I meet who believe that HIV is a manageable disease and it makes me angry. I honestly think that some people believe the worst side effect of HIV is excess belly fat (this is actually a side effect of one of the drugs). But, the fact is that new HIV transmission rates in the United States have not leveled off. The drug regimen is extremely strict (missing a dose can increase drug resistance) and costly (treatments range from $2K to $5K a month).

The power of this book is in the relevance that it still has 25 years later. The worldwide AIDS epidemic is such an important part of American history and as I read each page it felt unnerving to know that it continues today, and on such an epic scale.
Profile Image for Laura.
468 reviews21 followers
April 27, 2018
In an eloquent editorial in Advertising Age , editor-at-large James Brady wrote, "I am tired of compiling lists of the dead. They are actors and writers and designers and dancers and editors and retailers and decorators and sometimes when you see their names in the obituary pages of the [ New York] Times you think, yes, I knew that fellow....The dead are homosexuals who have contracted and will perish from AIDS. Almost everyone who knew them knows this, but there is a gentle, loving conspiracy of silence to deny reality....Men are dying and we in the press cough politely and draw curtains of discretion across the truth. Don't hurt anyone. Protect a name, a family, a reputation. A memory. So we write white lies about the cause of death....Can lies BE a cause of death?"

"Silence, beyond a healthy and periodic measure, is a trick. Nothing but a cheap alibi for an immature conscience attempting to escape self-examination and instead, trying to mimic a model of superior wisdom." ~~from "Why Silence is Deadly" (link under stuff I learned)

"Thus, the verbiage tended toward the intransitive. AIDSpeak, was rarely employed to motivate action; rather, it was most articulately pronounced when justifying inertia. Nobody meant any harm by this; quite to the contrary, AIDSpeak was the tongue designed to make everyone content. AIDSpeak was the language of good intentions in the AIDS epidemic; AIDSpeak was a language of death."

I graduated from nursing school in 2004, so caring for patients with HIV/AIDS is a fact of life for me. But this book showed me that I don't know as much as I thought I knew. The HIV I know can be well controlled. HAART therapy can reduce viral loads to undetectable levels...prolonging the lives of patients by decades, and effectively eliminating the risk of transmission to uninfected contacts.

Shilts showed me the grueling, frustrating, under-funded battle to get where we are now in And the Band Played On . He highlights the indifference, the prejudice, and the unnecessary deaths that occurred before patients with AIDS received the attention and treatment they so desperately needed. He showcases the thousands who died before treatments were formulated and the countless hundreds of thousands who died because control/containment was placed on the back-burner.

Bottom line: I've had conversations with older nurses who remember the uncertain times of the 1980's. This is a must read book for those (like me) who weren't born or were young children then. We must learn from the past, and do better today and in the future. Given 5 stars or a rating of "Perfect". Highly recommended!

"Gently, Marion Jones began talking about the young men with whom she had graduated from high school over forty years before, during the darkest hours of World War II. 'All the boys I knew went off to war and most of them didn't come back,' she said. 'The ones who did survive were damaged. That must be what it's like for you."

Stuff I learned: A link to the World Health Organization's AIDS page http://www.who.int/hiv/en/
A year by year overview of AIDS https://www.avert.org/professionals/h...
A heart-wretching video of Reagan's response to AIDS (or the lack thereof) ttps://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/11/reaga...
An opinion piece on why silence is deadly https://silencetolight.wordpress.com/...
Profile Image for Ayne Ray.
531 reviews
November 20, 2008
This landmark work is a detailed investigative report and eventual scathing indictment of the social and political forces that helped contribute to the tragic and rapid spread of the AIDS epidemic in its earliest years. Twenty years later, it still stands as one of the most important books on its topic.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,473 followers
October 31, 2007
A great and compelling book, but somehow, even in Reagan's America, it's hard to go along with the conspiracy theorists who make out that the government was merrily fiddling away while Rome burned. I mean, look at the response which people got when they wanted to close the bath houses.
86 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2013

A friend of mine loaned me this book in the late eighties, and it cut through the illogical and gimmicky rhetoric I was hearing about HIV/AIDS in my late teens. It is a book that emphasizes the need to take care of the sick and explains how our vanities and prejudices can prevent us for doing that. Several years ago I saw this book laying amongst a pile of discarded books in the dusty hallway of a college. A note had been posted above the pile which read "Please take." This book is too important to thrown out, so I picked it up and took it home.

In 1991, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen died of AIDS, and I comforted my flatmate through her grief. For some reason, I was nominated to speak to the Christian Union about the HIV virus and address their concerns. Since many of the attendees were brought up in homes where a very conservative viewpoint was prevalent I wasn't expecting too much. All I remember is one man telling me, " when I came here tonight I thought that Freddie Mercury deserved to die, when I left, I recognize he engaged in reckless behavior which led to his death, but that his death was not a punishment for his behavior." I remember this because when I told my grieving flatmate, she was at first astounded to hear about this and then relieved that I had taken the time to lead the discussion and had influenced his thoughts and feelings.

I guess from the outset, I saw AIDS as a medical problem, not a moral one, and I when I read this book I discovered I was not the only person who felt this way. Shilt's book illustrates how small groups of researchers and concerned gay men, not only had a ruthless virus to contend with, but also had to fight with numerous political, financial and career interests in order to get preventative measures and medical treatment underway.

Years later, a student in my class asked me if HIV could be transmitted from person to person by sharing silverware. Older and wiser, I knew to stop what I was doing and open up the class to a discussion on HIV/AIDS. I doubt that student left my class and joined the Gay Lesbian Straight Alliance but I do not for sure he spent some of his free time with individuals with developmental disabilities and was beginning to overcome some of his own fears, and was becoming a kinder person.

Anyone who lived through the eighties should reread this book with the benefit of hindsight, and anyone who has not read this book should read because as humans we are fallible and are likely to fail to respond to the next crisis if we do not learn from our mistakes.
11 reviews5 followers
February 26, 2023
Shilts writes at the end of And The Band Played On that the book is a work of journalism and that there has been no fictionalization, yet goes on to state that he reconstructs scenes and conversations, albeit based on interviews and other research. To me this process necessarily entails some degree of fictionalization, or at the very least, a departure from an 'objective' history of AIDS in Europe and America. Shilts can hardly be faulted for this given his professional and personal immersion in San Francisco's gay community so I don't think it's reasonable to criticize him for not being impartial, but I do wish he'd explicitly acknowledged his authorial power and influence at one point or another.

Instead, and particularly in the last hundred pages or so, Shilts' anger, frustration and disappointment with the factionalism among not only bureaucrats and doctors but gay men themselves shine through: he's angry with those who wanted to keep the bathhouses open, angry with what he calls AIDSpeak, angry with those "more concerned with the politics of AIDS than its medicine." But Shilts refuses to acknowledge that his own position is political: that his support for closing bathhouses was not "just" about containment and control, that fears of persecution by Christian fundamentalists and the Reagan administration were not "just" hysterical overreaction, that desperately wanting a rapid overhaul of health agencies was not "just" about restructuring government bureaucracies. While recognizing and so despising the political stalemates he witnessed, Shilts assumes his own position is more or less apolitical, or at least more responsible, moral and essentially just than those of his adversaries who were, again, "more concerned with the politics of AIDS than its medicine," as though medicine itself is ever politically neutral.

Shilts is certainly entitled to those judgements, but his failure to address the politics of his own conservative position somewhat undermines the book's "definitive" status (to say nothing of the scant attention he affords to the effects of AIDS on "the underclass").
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