And the Band Played On Summary

Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On

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And the Band Played On Summary

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And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, documents the events following the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The book takes an investigative journalistic approach to describe how the disease was handled—or not handled—within four different communities: the gay community, the medical community, the political and governmental community, and the media. Shilts posits that while HIV and AIDS were biologically caused by a virus, the lack of response in the medical and political communities, as well as the stigmatization caused by the news media, turned it into an epidemic.

The book begins with the 1977 diagnosis of Grethe Rask, a Danish doctor working in Africa. The book then chronicles the progression of the disease and the fight against it until 1985, when Rock Hudson, an actor, announced that he was dying from AIDS. It wasn’t until that announcement that the world turned its attention to HIV and AIDS; Shilts’ book details the early response in the eight years leading up to that moment.

Published in 1987, And the Band Played On was critically acclaimed. It quickly became a bestselling book. HBO filmed a movie based on the book, with the same title. Shilts wrote the book because as a gay man, he knew many who were affected by the disease. He died of AIDS in 1994.

Within the gay community, Shilts identifies two periods of time. Before 1980, he writes of a more carefree time when concern over disease wasn’t all that common because the virus wasn’t prevalent. Five years later a new period began, during which finding someone who didn’t know others who had HIV or AIDS was impossible within the gay community. The response at the time was to instruct gay men to cease sexual activity, rather than to practice safe sex. This was not only a slap in the face for gay activists, but it was also unrealistic. The other drawback to HIV and AIDS cropping up in the gay community was that at the time, gay men were ostracized. Only their own communities worked to raise funds to support the sick and combat the disease. Groups such as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and the NAMES Project were all born of these efforts.

The medical community was stunned by the influx of patients with deadly infections they couldn’t treat. Out of fear of HIV and AIDS and the diseases that often accompanied the latter, many medical providers were not only hesitant to offer treatment, but flat-out refused. Not all members of the medical community opted to turn a blind eye to the growing epidemic—San Francisco’s Public Health Department took steps to track down anyone who might be sick, regardless of whether they lived in the municipality. In the lab, personal grudges got in the way of progress at the Pasteur Institute of France and the National Cancer Institute in America. Additionally, competition for funding stalled progress by the National Cancer Institute and the CDC, or Centers for Disease Control. The other issue running rampant in the medical community was the refusal to acknowledge HIV and AIDS as anything other than a “gay disease.” Blood banks didn’t begin to test donations as a practice until 1985. Additionally, the medical community was slow to realize that HIV could be spread from mother to child or through unsafe drug use.

In the government, the CDC still faced funding issues. The administration talked about AIDS as a priority, but funding was not properly awarded to allow for effective research. In the news media, Shilts accused the media at large of ignoring AIDS. In his book, he cites how there was greater coverage of the Tylenol murders and Legionnaire’s disease than there was of AIDS, which was killing more people and spreading at an alarming rate. The media created and nurtured the stigmatizing idea that AIDS wasn’t a problem because it only affected drug addicts and gay men. Whereas most media outlets downplayed the danger AIDS posed to the nation, some even dangerously ignored the facts about how HIV is spread, and warned that it could be caught like the common cold.

And the Band Played On holds a mirror up to the AIDS epidemic, and the fact that it might have been stopped in its tracks had the gay community not been marginalized. Fear of the disease should have prompted research and education. Instead, it caused a wave of apathy from the government and was used by the media and in politics to further stigmatize gay men. Shilts’ book had a sizable impact on the nation’s response to HIV and AIDS, and continues to be an important book for understanding how the epidemic gained steam. It can also serve as a cautionary tale against ignoring or marginalizing future outbreaks and communities.