Thirty years ago, on April 23rd, 1984, the word went forth that AIDS had a viral cause and we knew what it was. What had once been called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) had spiraled out of control in America since it first surfaced in 1981. Three years later, as Dr. James O. Mason of the C.D.C. announced the identity of the viral agent, more than 4,000 people carried it within their bodies or had already left their bodies at its direction. In those three years, over 1,800 Americans were destroyed by AIDS. Their President would publicly speak the name of their killer only in 1985 and would not hold a press conference on the issue until 1987.
Silence in the face of HIV is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it was Americans who helped shatter that silence and inspire others to do so around the world. The excellent 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague, follows ACT UP and TAG as they found their voice in a world that wanted to ignore the suffering of so-called deviants--gay men and IV drug users--while the rest of America still felt safe. While not all the movement's voices rang in chorus at all times, their cry for help, for respect, for action resounded beyond protest sites and into the world's most powerful halls.
Others survived the epidemic as the world fell away around them--neighborhoods lost as neighbors collapsed into wheelchairs and caskets. We Were Here, a 2013 Emmy nominee, connects with five witnesses to the horror of the Castro's disintegration in San Francisco and shares their memories of the communities and friends that were lost in the desperate years before the miraculous triple cocktail. Nurses, flower sellers, and political organizers all shared a nightmare that most turned away from in disgust or despair.
Of course, HIV and AIDS didn't start or stop in the United States. Frontline created a record of the pandemic for the 25th anniversary of the disease that enveloped the world and traces its path from the Congo to the Castro and beyond. The Age of AIDS is no less virulent for the passing of a few years. It starkly yet sympathetically examines the responses to the crisis at home and abroad that all too often fell short but occasionally inspire tears of pride for the courage of leaders in office and out.
61,816 people reportedly died of AIDS in the year of my birth, 1988. By then, the syndrome had become the third-leading cause of death for American men between 25 and 44 years of age. Today, more than 35 million people around the world live with the virus, almost as many as the 36 million who are estimated to have died from AIDS-related causes.
On that day in 1984, H.H.S. Secretary Margaret Heckler declared that a vaccine was expected within two years. We have yet to find a cure, in spite of all the protests, the declarations, the speeches. That said, silence was worse. Far worse.