British Association for American Studies


Silence = Death: Podcasting the history of the AIDS Crisis

By Malcolm Craig and Mark McLay, creators of the American History Too! podcast

As of 2014, approximately 36.9 million people around the world are living with HIV and during that year approximately 1.2 million people died due to HIV-related illness.[1] For a disease which – these days – receives very little coverage, these are shocking figures.

It was in the 1980s that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and its precursor, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), became international news. Initially knowing very little about the subject, we decided to research and record an episode of the American History Too! podcast about the AIDS crisis in Ronald Reagan’s America. It was undoubtedly the toughest podcast we’ve done and served to illuminate our lack of understanding of the horrific absence of compassion shown to those who contracted HIV and AIDS during the 1980s.

As two white, straight, middle-class Scottish, male historians, do we have the right to explore such subjects? We would say yes. It’s the job of the historian to look at the evidence, illuminate dark corners, and try to make people aware about what really happened. But, it was a subject we approached with trepidation.

Our main concern was those who still live with HIV/AIDS, those who lost friends and saw loved ones die, and those who were neglected by the governments that were supposed to help them. We’ve tackled sensitive subjects before, American history is full of them. From colonial slavery, to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, through to the Vietnam War, we’ve tried to address controversies in history in the most sensitive manner possible. This was different.

The closest we came to touching on the entrenched homophobia that plagued – and in certain areas still plagues, even though recent decisions on gay marriage are a cause for celebration – the United States was through our discussion of the 1940s and 50s Red Scare. While the anti-communist ‘red baiting’ of HUAC, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy is well known, historians have only recently begun to dig into the ‘gay baiting’ of the ‘Lavender Scare’, the concurrent persecution of homosexual and suspected homosexuals.[2]

We felt that in order to do the subject of the 1980s AIDS crisis justice, we had to avoid repeating many of the myths and falsehoods that abound about the virus and the period. It was important not only examine the historiography of the subject, but crucially to look at the personal testimonies from those who contracted AIDS, those who tried to track its origins, and those who turned a blind eye when they should have extended a hand of friendship.[3]

The original name of the disease says much about the attitudes of the time: Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). It was initially perceived to be a purely homosexual problem, one that the heterosexual majority could ignore. The prevalence of the disease within the gay community allowed ingrained prejudices about gay lifestyles and gay sex to infect and influence the way the outbreak was handled.

During the 1970s, gay-friendly districts had emerged in certain coastal cities, most notably New York and San Francisco. In these areas, bathhouses became popular places for gay men to engage in sex with a variety of different partners, away from the morally-restrictive confines of society at large.  When HIV arrived in the United States around 1980, however, these bathhouses proved lethal to many of the men who frequented them. As more and more gay men lost their life to an – at the time – mystery illness, medical experts and some prominent members of the gay community advocated closing the bathhouses and urged gay men to curtail their number of sexual partners.

The advice was not well received and the bathhouses remained open. Such was the distrust that many in gay communities had for wider society, they believed that those who wanted to close down bathhouses were merely engaged in yet another attempt to suppress gay America.  Moreover, some even believed that the disease that was killing so many gay men was a government plot to rid the US of homosexuality. Finally, bathhouses were doing a roaring trade, and owners had no desire to close their establishments without the kind of conclusive scientific evidence that would not emerge until the latter half of the decade, by which point tens of thousands of gay Americans would be dead or dying from HIV/AIDS.

Most disturbing was the lack of sympathy, even empathy, afforded the thousands of men dying from a virus that destroyed the immune system and left them exposed to all manner of painful illnesses. Newspapers largely ignored the story until the first straight Americans died, medical institutions dragged their heels, and the President did not utter the word ‘AIDS’ in public until September 1985, only weeks before his close friend Rock Hudson died from AIDS related illness. It is clear that Pat Buchanan spoke for a not unsubstantial number of Americans when, in 1983, he declared, “The poor homosexuals, they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”[4]

In comparing the official British and American response, the latter’s failure to combat the AIDS epidemic is brought into stark relief.  In the United Kingdom, the population were warned ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’, in the United States, ignorance was promoted, and silence did indeed equal death.  HIV/AIDS remains one of the greatest modern failures of the US political system and we are still living with the legacies of that failure.

For those interested in the topic, we would advise to look no further than Randy Shilts’ book And the band played on (1987).  This extraordinary work of longform journalism traces the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s in a dispassionate, objective voice and gives the reader a sense of the gathering storm enveloping the gay community and the unwillingness of the relevant authorities to come to the rescue. While it is not a definitive account – Shilts wrongly put forward the ‘Patient Zero’ hypothesis, for example – the bulk of the book has stood the test of time.[5] Shilts – a gay man himself – was tested for HIV before finishing the book but refused to see the results of his test for fear that it would prejudice his writing. Tragically, Shilts test results were positive and he died in 1994, one year after HBO turned his book into a landmark television movie.

When we began thinking about doing a podcast on the AIDS crisis, it was with a view to exploring an interesting topic in contemporary history. In so doing, however, we realised the great responsibility of the historian to approach subjects in as sensitive and careful a manner as possible. It was an object lesson in recognizing the fortunate position we find ourselves in and we hope that the current historiographical trend in favour of LGBT history is a permanent change. Finally, doing this podcast gave us the opportunity tell the stories of people who – because of prejudice and fear – were ignored, abandoned, and vilified by those who should have helped them. While we are proud (if that is the correct word) of the podcast, we remain uncertain as to whether or not we did them justice.


[1] Statistics taken from http://www.hivaware.org.uk/facts-myths/hiv-statistics

[2] Two excellent books on this subject are David Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War persecution of gays and lesbians in the Federal government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) and Douglas M. Charles, Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s ‘Sex Deviates’ program (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015).

[3] For example, see these two interesting but quite different historiographical assessments: Jennifer Brier, ‘“Save Our Kids, Keep AIDS Out”: Anti-AIDS Activism and the Legacy of Community Control in Queens, New York’, Journal of Social History, 39:4 (Summer, 2006), 965-987; Elizabeth Fee and Nancy Krieger, ‘The Emerging Histories of AIDS: Three Successive Paradigms’, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 15:3 (1993), 459-487.

[4] Buchanan quoted in Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, people and the AIDS Epidemic (New York:  Penguin, 1987)

[5] In late 2014, an international team of scientists suggested that the origins of AIDS lay in the colonial exploitation violence of the Congo in the 1920s. The team identified Kinshasa – then called Leopoldville – as the most likely source of the disease. In the late 1990s, the noted evolutionary biologist William Hamilton journeyed to Africa in the hope of proving the conspiracy theory that AIDS came from US disease labs active in the Congo during the 1950s. An interesting – if controversial – account of his quest is given in the third part of Adam Curtis’s documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.


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