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AIDS @40: AIDS before and after Rock Hudson

“AIDS is not just a Hollywood disease. And it is not just a gay disease. This is the health crisis of this century.”

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By Karen Ocamb | LOS ANGELES – The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution,” former Nixon adviser and conservative journalist Pat Buchanan wrote May 24, 1983 in a New York Post column “AIDS Disease: It’s Nature Striking Back.”

The year before, in 1982, Buchanan — a proud son of the Confederacy and a CNN “Crossfire” commentator — staunchly defended John Demjanjuk, a retired Cleveland autoworker extradited to Israel as “Ivan the Terrible,” the SS Nazi responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Jews at Treblinka during the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, Buchanan later became an advisor in Ronald Reagan’s White House, which was already filled with Christian evangelicals for whom AIDS was a weapon of mass destruction in their persistent war on “sodomites.”  

A few federal representatives such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and California’s Rep. Henry Waxman — with help from gay deputy Tim Westmoreland — tried to intercede in stemming the growing AIDS crisis. In California, Assemblymember Art Agnos was a strong ally and in 1983, Senate President Pro Tempore David A. Roberti, working closely with his 27-year-old gay aide Stan Hadden, passed a bill establishing the California AIDS Advisory Committee. In 1985, the same year LIFE AIDS Lobby was launched, Hadden crafted legislation to encourage a coordinated approach to local AIDS programs and services. 

But in those early years of AIDS, scientists were groping for answers. In March 1983, 19 months after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published the first report on the strange new disease, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued interagency recommendations to prevent the transmission of AIDS through sexual contact, blood transfusions and needle sharing.

Finally in May, Drs. Francois Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier from the French Pasteur Institute in Paris isolated the retrovirus that causes AIDS, calling it LAV (Lymphadenopathy-associated virus). Soon thereafter, in 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo at the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, also isolated a virus, which he called HTVL-III. An international debate was sparked over credit for the discovery of the cause of AIDS.

The issue was exacerbated at an April 1984 news conference held by Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler and Dr. Edward N. Brandt Jr., the assistant secretary of HHS who previously announced that AIDS was “the No. 1 priority.” They declared that Gallo had identified the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, as the cause of AIDS. They also forecast that an HIV vaccine would be created in three years and commercially available within five years. The news conference failed to acknowledge the contributions of Montagnier, who many AIDS doctors favored. 

Dr. Michael Gottlieb, author of the first CDCD report on June 5, 1981, for instance, talked about Montagnier during his briefings to fellow AIDS Project Los Angeles board members, who included CDC report co-author Dr. Joel Weisman, lesbian feminist Ivy Bottini and Dr. Neil Schram. The APLA Board of Directors was officially convened on January 14, 1983 by co-chairs Weisman and attorney and MECLA co-chair Diane Abbitt.  

Gottlieb told the APLA board that he was impressed by the French paper. But Bottini was concerned. She told Gottlieb, “Michael, unless you know, with absolute certainty, that AIDS is caused by a virus, you can’t say anything about it publicly because we are going to be further stigmatized. People are going to be afraid of us.”

“And she was right,” Gottlieb told the Los Angeles Blade. 

In 1984, with hatred and AIDS deaths mounting, gays were giving up on gay liberation. But some fought on. L.A. Cares put up AIDS prevention billboards featuring “Poltergeist” actress Zelda Rubinstein telling her gay son to remember his rubbers. As explained in  “Guerilla Medicine,” LA medical nurse Jim Corti and Sausalito business consultant Marty Delaney drove to Tijuana, Mexico, to buy ribavirin, an over-the-counter cold remedy sold outside the US but not approved by the FDA for AIDS treatment for West Coast buyers clubs. “They haven’t even bothered to test [ it ] here…and the pharmacies here can’t sell it. Why, because it might be dangerous? Hell, dying is dangerous,” Corti said.

Delaney stopped drug running to found Project Inform to get the word out about possible new treatments and put pressure on drug companies and Federal bureaucrats, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who became director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH in 1984. 

For some gays, the fight for freedom expanded. Ron Stone, a 37-year-old gay former staffer for Sen. Alan Cranston, was so annoyed by development in his neighborhood, he teamed up with affordable housing guru Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, to incorporate West Hollywood as its own self-governing city.

On Nov. 29, 1984, an unusual coalition of renters, seniors and gays passed an initiative to incorporate the 1.9 square-mile West Hollywood and elected a gay-majority city council, including gay 27-year-old John Heilman who had recently passed his bar exam. “Gay Camelot,” Frontiers publisher Bob Craig called the new City of West Hollywood. 

But the First Wave of AIDS started crashing hard on cities like West Hollywood. First-in-the-nation ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on AIDS were passed in L.A., West Hollywood, San Francisco, and Hayward. Heilman drafted the WeHo AIDS non-discrimination ordinance, which was challenged the following year when a nail salon refused service to gay customer Paul Jasperson. Attorney Gloria Allred stuck with and eventually won the case after Jasperson’s death from AIDS.

The LA non-discrimination ordinance, drafted by closeted City Councilmember Joel Wachs , passed 14-0. But after Mayor Tom Bradley signed the new law in August, all hell broke loose. “It was overwhelmingly awful,” Wachs told the LA Times. “A lot of it described (AIDS) as a curse rather than a virus. I was stunned by the incredible numbers of really hateful things that came in.”

“It’s going to get worse. It really is going to get worse,” said longtime gay ally Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Indeed, the Associated Press reported on an LA poll showing that 51 percent of 2,308 people supported quarantining of AIDS patients in 1985.

Entertainers had tried to help raise money and awareness in those early days, including Debbie Reynolds, Chika Rivera, Joan Rivers and Rita Moreno. But it wasn’t until Rock Hudson that the world woke up. 

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in a Warner Brothers Studio publicity still, 1956

Hudson was diagnosed on June 5, 1984 with a KS lesion on his neck, three weeks after attending a White House state dinner.  He turned to Gottlieb for help. Hudson noted that some Americas were flying to Paris, where the more compassionate French were treating them with a compound that worked against most retroviruses. Gottlieb offered to help Hudson meet Dr. Dominique Dormont and get an experimental treatment, HPA-23. Hudson was going to the Cannes Film Festival so he agreed.

“We had no idea if this drug worked. And if it worked, how often did we give it? It was truly a shot in the dark,” Gottlieb told the LA Blade. 

It was on Hudson’s second or third trip to Paris on July 21 when he collapsed in the lobby of the Ritz Hotel and was taken to the American Hospital in Paris.” Longtime publicist Dale Olson reported that the movie star had inoperable liver cancer. Three days later, Olson sent a desperate telegram to the White House begging for help to get him transferred to Percy Military Hospital that refused to accept him because he wasn’t French. Dormont “reports only one hospital in the world can offer necessary treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” Olson wrote. Nancy Reagan said no. But she wanted the press to know that Reagan had called Hudson and “wished him well” and the couple was “keeping him in their thoughts and prayers.” 

The next day, July 25, Hudson’s French publicist Yanou Collart announced that Hudson had AIDS. On July 26, “AIDS was on the front page of virtually every Sunday morning paper in the United States,” Randy Shilts later wrote in And the Band Played On. “There was AIDS before Rock Hudson and AIDS after.” 

Hudson was flown home on an Air France jetliner and driven to UCLA Medical Center. The chair of Gottlieb’s department told him to hold a news conference. He had permission from Hudson to confirm the star had AIDS. But Gottlieb was not flanked by rows of doctors as is customary. Instead, he stood alone, with a public relations person. “Of course, I read a statement. But I felt inhibited about responding to questions,” trying to avoid questions like “is Rock Hudson gay?”

“There was precious little support from the institution,” Gottlieb told the LA Blade, still annoyed by the missed opportunity. “It was an embarrassment. The press is out there, hundreds of people, flashbulbs popping as they did in those days. And all they got was a brief statement confirming that Rock Hudson had AIDS. There was no further guidance or support. So, it was an embarrassment as far as I’m concerned.”

Gottlieb snuck Elizabeth Taylor to see Hudson through a back freight door. “Elizabeth was dressed to the nines,” Gottlieb recalled to PEOPLE magazine. “She was a little anxious about not having security.” But it was Gottlieb who jumped hearing a loud bang in the elevator. “Elizabeth laughed and said ‘It’s just my jewels.’ She had hit the wall of the elevator with a large diamond, the Krupp diamond,” Gottlieb said. “She asked me if it was okay to hug and kiss him. She was worried about his immune system. Not hers.” Afterwards, he said, “Rock was very glad to have seen her.”

On July 28, APLA held the world’s first AIDS Walk. More than 4,500 walkers showed up, raising $673,000. Mayor Bradley served as chair for the six-plus miles walkathon, which started from the “sky set” of Paramount Studios in Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, other machinations were afoot. LA Times society columnist MaryLouise Oates called her friend philanthropist Wallis Annenberg about co-chairing the APLA 1985 Commitment to Life gala on September 19. Annenberg agreed and the two decided to ask former First Lady Betty Ford serve as the other cochair. Ford agreed and said she would attend the event to receive the first Commitment to Life Award. Elizabeth Taylor agreed to co-host the event with Burt Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley MacLaine and Burt Lancaster – and helped organize the event at the Bonaventure Hotel with her publicist Chen Sam and Gary Pudney, ABC Entertainment vice president. 

The crowd included Cher, Linda Evans, Diahann Carroll, Carol Burnett, Cyndi Lauper, Rod Stewart, Sybil Brand, Tom Bradley, Gregory and Veronique Peck, Whoopi Goldberg, Angie Dickinson with George Hamilton, Stevie Wonder, society florist David Jones with Doris Fields, Barbara Marshall, Gina Lollobrigida, and scores more among the 2,500-plus guests, Oates reported.

Hudson, who left UCLA Medical Center for his Beverly Hills home on August 24, sent a message of love and thanks read by his friend, Burt Lancaster. 

“Tonight is the start of my personal war on this disease, AIDS,” said Taylor. “We celebrate life by increasing the number of survivors and not by counting the number of victims . . . commit to doing and learning more about the disease, and the cure can be found. L’Chayim, ” to life.

Burt Reynolds said: “I used to think ‘macho’ was a marvelous thing to be–strong, swaggering, courageous, bold. I played all of that; our friends with AIDS are now having to live it. . . . The real macho men are not on the screen. They are fighting for their lives–and ours–at home and in hospitals.”

But he was hissed when reading a statement from Reagan about how “The U.S. Public Health Service has made remarkable progress” in efforts to conquer the disease, adding “there is still much to be done.” Reagan had finally used the word “AIDS” at a news conference three weeks earlier. He told the APLA audience: “we recognize the need for concerted action by organizations like yours, devoted to education, support services and research.” The American AIDS death toll stood at 16,000. 

AIDS is “not just a Hollywood disease. And it is not just a gay disease. This is the health crisis of this century,” said APLA Chair Peter Scott. “Every knowledgeable scientist will affirm that AIDS is not an easy disease to catch, and yet we continue to witness unfounded and unconscionable mistreatment of persons with AIDS and those at risk.”

Ford accepted her award, saying she had battled “two diseases, that for a long time nobody wanted to talk about: cancer and alcoholism. With public awareness, attitudes toward these have been changed. Attitudes can be changed about AIDS too. They are changing. In my life, being part of this is important. . . . Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to help with the understanding of another disease.”

A week before Hudson died at age 59 on Oct. 2, 1985, Gottlieb rode up in an elevator with Hudson’s business manager Wallace Sheft who was still angry at the airline for charging $250,000 to fly Hudson home. He told Gottlieb that Hudson wanted to give him $250,000 “to do with what you want.” It was based on an advance from a book by Sarah Davidson. Sheft was thinking in terms of the Rock Hudson Memorial Fund for AIDS Research. But since Gottlieb was getting no support from UCLA and was getting major flack, “I thought this is a time to try and form a national research foundation. We got a bunch of people together at a law office in Century City. We formed a board — Joel Weisman was part of it and a number of other people. And we called it the National AIDS Research Foundation.”

Enter Gottlieb’s friend gay Republican friend and AIDS activist Bruce Decker and Terry Beirn, a former news producer who worked with cancer researcher Dr. Mathilde Krim

in her small AIDS Medical Foundation. AMF, which also included Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and AIDS activist and singer Michael Callen, was in the red, having given out more money than they had.

“Bruce Decker hears about what we’re doing — and we have $250,000.  He and Terry are Fire Island friends” and they see the need to go national by merging, Gottlieb said. “Of course, Elizabeth Taylor and Bill Meisenheimer are involved. Meisenheimer already had Commitment to Life, which raised $1.3 million. And the East Coast people saw how much money was raised, that the West Coast had Rock Hudson and the political dynamics were shifting to of all places, Los Angeles. Meetings were arranged to coordinate a merger of the two to make one national AIDS foundation called the American Foundation for AIDS Research — amfAR.” 

However, Gottlieb noted, “we on the West Coast were very much on the fence about this. Ultimately, David Geffen persuaded me that it was the right thing to do.” Geffen was close with Mathilde Krim and her powerful husband, Arthur Krim, president and board chair of United Artists. Geffen “raised his voice and said something to the effect of, ‘do you know who she is?’” Yes, Gottlieb knew did but wasn’t impressed. Eventually, Gottlieb left amfAR for private practice and is now back at APLA.  

Two other major events happened in 1985: the CDC hosted the First International Conference on AIDS in Atlanta with 2,000 registrants. And America met 14-year-old Ryan White, an Indiana hemophiliac infected through a blood transfusion and barred from school because he had AIDS. 

Interestingly, Pat Buchanan, the conservative great right hope, was Reagan’s communications director from February 6, 1985  to March 1, 1987. Two months after he left, on May 31, 1987, Reagan gave his first major address on AIDS. The number of deaths had topped 25,000.

Karen Ocamb is the Director of Media Relations for Public Justice, a national nonprofit legal organization that advocates and litigates in the public interest. The former News Editor of the Los Angeles Blade, Ocamb is a longtime chronicler of the lives of the LGBTQ community in Southern California. 

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AIDS and HIV

$48 million earmarked for HRSA centers in effort to beat HIV/AIDS

“Community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations”

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The Hubert H. Humphrey Building, HHS headquarters Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: U.S. GSA)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has awarded more than $48 million in allocations earmarked to medical centers under Health Resources & Services Administration in localities with high incidents of HIV infection as part of the initiative to beat the disease.

Xavier Becerra, U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in a statement said that the contributions are key component of the initiative, which is called “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” and seeks to reduce new infections by 90 percent by 2030.

“HHS-supported community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations,” Becerra said. “I am proud of the role they play in providing critical services to 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. Today’s awards will ensure equitable access to services free from stigma and discrimination, while advancing the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025.”

The $48 million in government spending allocations went to HRSA centers 71 HRSA-supported health centers across 26 states, Puerto Rico and D.C. — areas identified with the highest rates of HIV infections — to expand HIV prevention and treatment services, including access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as well as outreach and care coordination, according to HHS.

The Ending the HIV Epidemic was set up under the previous administration, which made PrEP a generic drug after an accelerated effort and set a goal of beating HIV by 2030. Biden has continued the project, after campaigning on beating HIV a full five years earlier in 2025. Observers, however, are skeptical he can meet that goal.

Diana Espinosa, acting administrator for the Health Resources and Services Administration, (HRSA) said in a statement the $48 million will go a long way in reaching goals to beat HIV/AIDS.

“We know our Health Center Program award recipients are well-positioned to advance the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative, with a particular focus on facilitating access to PrEP, because of their integrated service delivery model,” Espinosa said. “By integrating HIV services into primary care, and providing essential enabling services like language access or case management, HRSA-supported health centers increase access to care and improve health outcomes for patients living with HIV.”

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AIDS and HIV

Surviving Voices, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS

The Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS

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Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial (Photo Credit: NAM)

SAN FRANCISCO – The National AIDS Memorial Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS through the voices of survivors of the pandemic, now in its 40th year.

More than 700,000 U.S. lives have been lost since the first cases of AIDS were first reported in 1981. Today, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV, with a disproportionate impact in communities of color and in southern U.S. states.

The Memorial has officially released its most recent mini-documentary, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” following exclusive screenings at two LGBTQ+ film festivals – Frameline45 and SF Queer Film Fest 2021.  The mini-documentary, along with deep dive personal interview segments with survivors and advocates, can be viewed on the Memorial’s website at www.aidsmemorial.org.

“The National AIDS Memorial is honored to have our Surviving Voices mini-documentary featured at these influential film festivals,” said Chief Executive John Cunningham. “It speaks to the important work our organization is doing to share these powerful personal stories of hope, resilience and the journey of survivors around the issue of HIV/AIDS and addiction in an authentic and powerful way.”

“Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” focuses the camera on the unique challenges of HIV/AIDS faced by this community. Through personal stories of survival, the film powerfully captures the journey of AIDS advocates and those of individual survivors living with HIV/AIDS who have struggled simultaneously with the disease of addiction, in raw, honest and forthright conversations.  It depicts their individual strength, power, hope and resilience, the importance of community, spirit, self-respect, and the will to live with dignity and pride.  It also shows their vulnerabilities, the shame, denial, stigma, and hopelessness they have experienced. 

As Queer Chaplain Bonnie Violet Quintana shares, “I can be as I am. Me getting HIV. Me being in recovery – all of that is a big part of Me.” 

The National AIDS Memorial’s Surviving Voices mini-documentaries are produced and directed by Jörg Fockele and funded through a grant by Chevron, a long-standing partner of the National AIDS Memorial. Community partners include the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, Stonewall Project and the Castro Country Club.

“We believe in the power of storytelling and the lessons it can teach current and future generations,” said Huma Abbasi, General Manager, Health & Medical at Chevron. “Our long-time support for Surviving Voices is part of our commitment to sharing the very human experiences that have shaped 40 years of the AIDS epidemic. At Chevron, our success is tied to the progress and prosperity of the communities where we operate. In line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, we believe that healthy, educated communities are critical to that success.”

Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial created to ensure the myriad stories and lessons of the epidemic are captured, curated, and retained for current and future generations.  “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” is the sixth film produced in this multi-year oral history initiative, which also includes “The Transgender Community & AIDS,” “The A&PI Community & AIDS,” “Women & AIDS,” “The National Hemophilia Community & AIDS,” and “The San Francisco Leather Community & AIDS.”

“I hope that these mini-documentaries will be as inspiring for current and future generations confronting their own challenges as they were for us when we filmed them,” said Fockele.

Learn more about the Surviving Voices, the National AIDS Memorial, its mission, programs and how to provide support at www.aidsmemorial.org.

Surviving Voices Mini-Documentary: Substance Users, Recovery Community and AIDS:

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AIDS and HIV

Governor Newsom signs HIV & Aging Act authored by Sen. John Laird

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

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Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of California

SACRAMENTO – On Friday Governor Gavin Newsom announced the signing of Senate Bill 258, the HIV & Aging Act, authored by Senator John Laird (D – Santa Cruz). Senate Bill 258 will ensure HIV+ seniors are included in the definition of “greatest social need”.

“When I was the Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director in the 1980’s, it was our dream to have people living with HIV live into old age,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to age. Governor Newsom signing the HIV & Aging Act is a historic moment for the LGBTQ community, and all those who have been affected by the HIV crisis.”

With the recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of HIV positive older people is increasing. According to a 2018 California HIV Surveillance Report published by the California Department of Public Health, over half of the people living with the virus in California are now aged 50 years or older. This same report shows that 15 percent of newly diagnosed patients were age 50 and older in that same year.

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Sen. John Laird speaking at PRIDE with the LGBTQ Legislative Caucus June 2021 (Blade File Photo)

Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin notes, “After surviving the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, many Californians living with HIV are now over the age of 50, but in dire need of support. Thanks to Governor Newsom, Senator Laird and HIV advocates, the Golden State will now make sure that our elders living with HIV have access to food assistance, job training, transportation or any other vital services. We applaud Governor Gavin Newsom for signing the HIV & Aging Act into law, making California just the second state to ensure older Californians living with HIV don’t just continue to survive, but thrive.”

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago and now a majority of people with HIV in California are over 50 years old. Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are not yet prepared to address the unique needs of this population,” APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson said adding; “Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. We thank Senator Laird for his leadership on this historic bill to ensure that people aging with HIV have the resources and support they need to thrive and age with dignity.”

“We must ensure that LGBTQ seniors have the affirming care and support so they can age in peace with dignity,” stated Laird. “It’s incumbent upon us to not force individuals back into the closet for them to access adequate care. Once again, I’d like to applaud the Governor for his continued support of the LBGTQ community and to my colleagues for making this a priority bill.”

The HIV & Aging Act received unanimous bipartisan support through both chambers of the Legislature and is a legislative priority for the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.

Senate Bill 258 will go into effect January 1, 2022.

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