The press didn't cover AIDS aggressively enough, the Reagan administration didn't respond quickly to the crisis—and ordinary people laughed at the victims.
1983 AIDS demonstration in Central Park. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Back in the 80s, long before Donald Trump declared war on political correctness, Andrew Dice Clay was getting huge laughs at the expense of AIDS victims. In his comedy special, A Night with Dice, the tough-guy comedian had the crowd in stitches with such gay-bashing humor as:
"You got 20 million faggots running around and going: 'Where could this come from? How can I get this?' It's very simple... If you're walking around with shit on your dick every day, you're bound to pick something up."
Dice Clay was notorious for pushing the bounds of good taste, but he wasn't the only one turning a fatal disease into a joke. Eddie Murphy used AIDS material and homophobia in his 1983 special Delirious (he later apologized), and even mainstream family sitcoms such as Mr. Belvedere made AIDS jokes—complete with a laugh track.
Why was AIDS so funny in the 80s?
Partly, it was that the public was allowed to dismiss the disease as only affecting gay men. "The lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer," was how NBC anchor Tom Brokaw put it in one of the first news reports on AIDS, which aired June 17, 1982. Before that year, AIDS was referred to as GRID—gay-related immune deficiency—the press also called it "gay cancer" and "gay plague."
"The total apathy in the mainstream press was because the people who were dying in early 1980s were not newsworthy," said Jennifer Brier, the director of the gender and women's studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Infectious Ideas: US Political Response to the AIDS Crisis. "At the time, this was about profound homophobia and unwillingness to talk about gay male lives. Beyond that, whenever an AIDS story ran, it was linked to white gay men, as if that somehow explained the course of the disease."
Basically, the thought of men having sex with one another made Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy snicker, so they joked about it. They even joked about the horrible disease that was killing so many of those men. And people laughed.
AIDS was even funny to the Reagan administration. At a 1982 press conference—with 853 AIDS deaths having been reported in the United States—reporter Lester Kinsolving asked White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes about the AIDS epidemic, the first question Speakes ever fielded about the disease:
"Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?"
If you watch the video compilation of Kinsolving's continued efforts to talk to Speakes about AIDS over the years, you'll see the room consistently responded to him by laughing. During one presser, Speakes joked that's Kinsolving was "a fairy."
"Speakes didn't even know what AIDS was. He responded by trying to make fun of me," Kinsolving, who is now 88 years old, told VICE. "I read about it somewhere and I was very concerned, enough to ask about it at the White House. When I asked my question, he evaded and he joked—I thought it was outrageous."
At the time, Kinsolving was a reporter for the conservative media outlet WorldNetDaily. Prior to that he had worked for the San Francisco Examiner and was one of the first reporters to write criticism of Jim Jones and the People's Temple. He was looked upon by many in the press corps as a crackpot, and—ironically given his place in the history of AIDS coverage—is a fierce opponent of gay rights.
"I am opposed to it and always will be," Kinsolving, who has previously referred to gay rights organizations as "the sodomy lobby," told VICE.
Still, Kinsolving was the only reporter on the beat who would consistently press the Reagan administration about responding to, or even acknowledging, the AIDS crisis.
"Reporters were currying favor with Speakes and they were more focused on making fun of me then what I was actually saying, since I had a pretty controversial reputation among the press corps and I was considered an outsider," Kinsolving said.
According to Kinsolving, Sam Donaldson, then the White House correspondent for ABC News, was one of the few members of the White House press corps who would stand up for him. Donaldson would say "These are perfectly legitimate questions," and tell Kinsolving: "You're asking all the questions we're dying to ask." (Donaldson did not return a request for comment.)
"AIDS wasn't that widely documented, and it was barely reported," Kinsolving said.
In 1981, the New York Times published only three stories on AIDS, and just three stories in 1982, none of which made the front page. (The Times didn't put AIDS on the front page until the following year.) By contrast, the cyanide-laced Tylenol pills that killed seven people in 1982 resulted in a massive media panic, with the New York Times covering the story every single day that October.
The White House also ignored the crisis. "Reagan was silent, for the most part, while senior advisors in his administration fought over what to say to the public and how to say it," Brier, the professor, said. It wasn't until 1985 that Reagan finally ordered a report from Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Meanwhile, dying people were being laughed at.
What brought AIDS to the attention of the mainstream arguably wasn't protests or Kinsolving's questions or even the mounting death toll. It was Rock Hudson. In July 1985, the movie icon announced that he had AIDS, just months before the disease killed him. The coming out of such a famous (and famously masculine) star allowed the press to personify and humanize the story. Charity fundraising and government funding followed, as did the media's belated realization that AIDS was not just a gay disease. This was in part served by the 1986 death of supermodel Gia Carangi, who contracted AIDS through intravenous drug use and sharing dirty needles.
The public went from ignoring AIDS to panicking over it. A poll conducted by the New York Daily News in 1985 found that 42 percent of respondents wanted people with AIDS to be quarantined. News reports featured stories of nurses quitting rather than treating AIDS patients, prison guards demanding special protective suits to deal with infected prisoners, and funeral directors refusing to embalm dead people with AIDS. The CDC published a report about how AIDS was transmitted in September 1983, but misinformation was clearly still running rampant.
Jen Kates, VP and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that current polling shows Americans are less fearful of AIDS than they once were, but "there are still those who harbor misconceptions about HIV. In addition, HIV-related stigma continues," making it vitally important to continue to educate people about the disease, and not slide back into ignorance and homophobia.
Historically, the Reagan administration failed the gay community by not issuing a public statement on the crisis until 1985. But there were other failures. The press didn't ask the right questions or pay the proper amount of attention to AIDS. Mainstream comedians, writers, actors, and directors could have highlighted the disease, but ignored it or even mocked its sufferers (which is why Hudson deserves so much credit for his admission). Regular people failed, too, every time they heard a joke about dying gay men and laughed.
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