Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day: A Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

December 1st is World AIDS Day (WAD), Reason to Take a Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

[Author's Note: This article was also published in Out IN Jersey Magazine.] As always, thanks for stopping by. Remember those who've lost their lives to AIDS today, on World AIDS Day, and every day.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness, a Biography of AIDS

Remember the movie Conspiracy Theory starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson? Have you ever wondered why you believed the Mel Gibson character’s side of the story and not what seemed to be the “official” version?

Truth is that conspiracy theories intrigue many of us. Our first reaction to them may be dismissal, but then we cannot help but give them that second thought. Conspiracy theories populate not only our fantasy—movies and novels—but also our reality. Take, for example, the conspiracy theory surrounding the Holocaust, moon landing or 9/11 attacks. Most of them are proven to be absolute lies. A few continue to fuel our pre-existing distrust in the official perspective on pretty much everything.

Take, for example, the AIDS conspiracy theory. We hear the word “AIDS” maybe more often this year because we find ourselves in the thirtieth year of pandemic. When it comes to AIDS, there are a multiple versions of related conspiracy theories, ranging from total denial of the existence of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to the existence of an available AIDS cure, which, though, is kept secret at the gain of the Big Pharma and the expense of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS conspiracy theory has made the headlines, on and off, throughout the last three decades—in 2008, because of statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor. Regarding the AIDS conspiracy theory those who tend to consider the idea of the government’s involvement are not necessarily AIDS denialists, but rather skeptics about the AIDS information (especially related to how HIV entered the U.S.) presented to them by the authorities. And maybe, just maybe, the seeds of this skepticism are based on experiences lived by the skeptics themselves or by their friends and loved ones.

When it comes to the AIDS conspiracy theory—by which HIV was man-made and introduced in the American gay society through the hepatitis B vaccine experiment of the late seventies as a biological warfare in order to cleanse the society of gays, drug addicts, prostitutes and the like—most people automatically dismiss the thought, mainly because the idea itself sounds like an impossible genocide, something nobody would be capable of. Yet history has proven otherwise—remember the Ukrainian genocide, right before the beginning of World War II, when millions of people died of starvation under Stalin’s orders; or the genocides decimating populations on the African continent, some of them in recent history.

In the U.S. many question the notion that the government allowed AIDS to happen. Many more question the truth (or falsity) of the AIDS conspiracy theory. Nobody can positively say when (or if) it can be proven with total certainty. What is proven, though, is the fact that the government allowed the Tuskegee experiment to take place. The Tuskegee experiment started in 1932 and lasted 40 years. It involved 600 black men—399 infected with syphilis and 201 not infected. Participants did volunteer but they were never told the whole truth about the experiment, nor were they cured of syphilis when penicillin became available and the official treatment for the disease. The experiment ended in 1972, only after the Associated Press broke the story.

But who’s ready to break the AIDS conspiracy story once and for all, one way or the other? The truth is that, among the experts on either side of this seemingly fragile topic, not many are willing to talk out loud about it (or reply to interview inquiries for that matter). Most medical experts dismiss it altogether. On the other hand, there are a vocal handful of AIDS conspiracy theory proponents who make their voices heard, but not many of them on the government’s involvement in the hepatitis B vaccine experiment that preceded only by a few years the first cases of AIDS in the United States.

Therefore to find the answers, those who don’t dismiss the idea of AIDS as a conspiracy theory turn to trusted people, those who’ve lived through the horrors of the dark, early years of AIDS. These warriors, long-term AIDS survivors, may not be able to certify the conspiracy theory. Yet, they can talk about true-to-life experiences they’ve lived through.

What makes it interesting is that some of these stories reflect intriguing coincidences in the larger picture of the controversy surrounding the AIDS conspiracy theory. For example, the hepatitis B vaccines were first offered to members of the gay community, in the late seventies, around 1978. Participants had to receive three shots in order to get the vaccine. Long-term AIDS survivors, nowadays, recall that they got all three hepatitis B shots, and then developed AIDS in the early and mid-eighties.

The first official U.S. AIDS casualties surfaced on June 5th, 1981, in Los Angeles, where doctors found a strange type of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five young gay men. Although the medical professionals didn’t know the cause of the disease, they knew it was associated with a weakened immune system. And the cause for this impaired immunity was still a mystery. The patients died within days. That same summer, an article published in the New York Times announced the appearance of a rapidly fatal form of a rare cancer—Kaposi’s sarcoma, or KS—that doctors had found in 41 homosexual men. During the first years of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, the “gay cancer” a.k.a. “gay plague” was considered an intrinsic part of the gay community, so much that it was called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

For many members of the gay community the mention of the new “gay cancer” came as a blip in the news, during the early eighties. It wasn’t until a few years later that the “gay cancer” made headlines again, under a new name. In 1985 the Center of Disease Control announced that it wasn’t a (gay) cancer causing all the disease and suffering and death, but a virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The CDC called the multitude of strange diseases the virus caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The Center of Disease Control also promised that a vaccine was on its way.

By the accounts of long-term AIDS survivors who’re here today to tell the story, the early eighties of the epidemic (1981 – 1985), known nowadays as the “dark years of AIDS,” were the years of silent sufferings and mysterious deaths. They were the years when a lot of people just… disappeared. One day they were around, the next they were gone, and nobody knew for sure what had happened to them. It took four years of too many silent deaths and one publicized celebrity death for AIDS to make the headlines in the U.S. It wasn’t until the disease claimed the life of actor Rock Hudson (1985) that its threat was brought home to many Americans. 

But that doesn’t mean that the first four years of loss and suffering and sickness of unknown people were forgotten. They have inspired many artists to capture the epidemic in various art forms, from literature and Broadway shows to film and photography.

Author Randy Shilts wrote about the forgotten years of AIDS and the individuals who lost their lives to AIDS during those years in his book And the Band Played On, later made into a movie. In The Band Shilts touched on what is now common knowledge—the disinterest with which the Reagan administration treated the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It is a fact that President Reagan uttered the word “AIDS” for the first time only years after the appearance of the first official AIDS cases in America and after the CDC’s announcement of the HIV discovery.

Playwright Tony Kushner also touches on the indifferent treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS by the Reagan administration in his play, Angels in America, later made into an HBO movie. The story of Angels starts in 1985, a time when HIV was announced as the cause of AIDS, a time when Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions covered AIDS patients’ bodies, almost as a sign of what an AIDS diagnosis meant in those days.

Those living in New York City at the time may remember the giant billboard posted in Times Square displaying a picture of Ronald Reagan, his face covered with purple Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. It was a protest message capturing the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS issue. Photographed by Italian Oliviero Toscani, the image made the cover of Colors magazine in 1994.

When it comes to the artistic interpretation of AIDS, some artists are more vocal than others. Some become activists, while others use their artwork to express their opinions. That’s how we get thought-provoking, rich in symbolism pieces of visual art, such as Dion Hitchings' "aids." 

A similar message to the one captured in Hitchings' "aids" is present in Kurt Weston’s "Anger is an Energy." The photograph portrays a gay, HIV positive, African American man. The symbolism of this image is two-fold—the tolerance and acceptance with which the African American community surrounds its HIV positive and/or gay members, and also the anger towards the disease seen as a source of positive energy, vital for AIDS patients to stay alive.

When it comes to AIDS, award-winning photographer Kurt Weston hopes that related artworks will become a testimony; that future generations will be able to look at the body of work inspired by AIDS and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”

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