This column was originally published by Salon on April 14, 1997.
Fourteen years and more than 300,000 deaths ago, Peter Collier and I wrote a story for California magazine about the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. At the time the virus had not yet been isolated and there had been only 3,000 fatalities nationally. But it was already clear to the medical community that the culprit was a retrovirus, that there might never be a cure, that AIDS cases among gays were doubling every six months and that if the behavioral patterns of gays and drug users did not change, there would be more than 300,000 people dead by 1997.
In normal circumstances, the minimal public health response to an impending epidemic would have been to identify the carriers of the disease by mandatory testing of at-risk communities, closing off “hot zones” of the epidemic, such as gay bathhouses and drug “shooting galleries,” contact-tracing of those who had been in touch with the already sick and honest public education about the dangers of promiscuous anal sex among gays and needle-sharing among drug addicts.
None of these measures, Collier and I found, was acceptable to a powerful lobby of gay activists that labeled them as “discriminatory” and “homophobic” and made clear to any public health official who advocated them that they would be doing so at the risk of their careers. As a result, none of the standard public health measures were consistently deployed. Instead, a series of politically correct ideas and “community-approved” policies became the only measures feasible for political leaders to advocate, for the media to promote and for public health agencies to pursue.
They included a number of emotionally comfortable but medically misleading myths: that AIDS is an “equal opportunity” virus as threatening to heterosexuals as homosexuals; that government tightwads and homophobes who weren’t throwing enough money at medical research were helping to spread the plague; that “safe sex” with condoms and government-promoted “needle-exchanges” were adequate preventive measures.