Randy Shilts creates a tour de force history of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic. It’s 600 pages of intense details, drawn from thousands of interviews with 900+ people. Despite being published in 1987, it remains one of the most definitive books on the history of AIDS and the gay community.
After college, Shilts moved to San Francisco, working as a journalist for The Advocate and The San Francisco Chronicle. This background gave him a unique seat at the side of history, as it was being made. And the Band is a compilation of various angles on the story, from personal to scientific to political.
Shilts examines what it felt like to be a gay man as the diagnosis of AIDS shifted from “gay cancer” to ARC to AIDS and HIV. He compares the attitudes of the New York gay community with that in San Francisco. And every description is full of so much heart and pain. It’s scope is vast, even as most chapters include poignant personal details.
I’m mad I waited so many decades to read this book. On the other hand, reading about an epidemic in the midst of a pandemic is a perfect moment. They’re different enough that it feels less stressful. And yes, there were times when the parallels were just too close.
As the story started, I loved learning exactly how the actual process of public health, epidemiology, and contact tracing work. The relevance! And then the book starts describing political wrangling in federal and multiple city governments. Shilts also lays bare the competition between the various scientific entities. All that felt pretty relevant to today, as my county government currently opposes our state government‘s pandemic response plan.
Because we have spent so long now with mostly effective treatment for HIV, it’s easy to forget how much of a death sentence AIDS was in the 1980s. If you lived with AIDS (or all of its other earlier names), you had opportunistic infection after infection. Life was not easy. There was no treatment, no AZT, no drug cocktails. And we can’t forget that even now, almost 40 years later, there is still no vaccine for AIDS. If that doesn’t give you pause as you contemplate COVID-19, I don’t know what will.
AIDS and the gay experience are themes I’m moved by, perhaps because of friends and family in that community. Or perhaps because I live with incurable chronic illness too. If you like medical drama, political wrangling, and a solid dose of history this is a great book. I’m giving it five stars.
This was a perfect pair to read with Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Other pairs would include The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by M.K. Czerwiec. An alternate memoir is Standing Strong: An Unlikely Sisterhood and the Court Case that Made History by Diane Reeve. This one tells the story of a man infected with HIV who purposely has sex with as many women as he can, and how the women joined together to stop him.