Across the country, reports began to emerge of targeted persecution and violence against people with HIV/AIDS, particularly gays. In Seattle, one group of young men rampaged through a local gay district, beating people with baseball bats and raping two men with a crowbar. When one of the attackers was arrested, he told police, “If we don’t kill these fags, they’ll kill us with their fucking AIDS disease.”
The AIDS epidemic flared and raged in the ’90s because no one put it out when it was smoldering in the ’80s.
In 1987, President Reagan finally gave a speech on AIDS. It was, in many ways, an underwhelming speech, filled with platitudes and too few commitments to action. But finally the president said what the nation needed to hear: “It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness… This is a battle against disease, not against our fellow Americans.” We could have used those words in 1982, but they were better late than never.
As the Reagan administration was waking up from its long AIDS slumber, the scientific fight against the disease was moving forward as well. In March 1987, the first treatment to slow the progression of AIDS was approved by the FDA. The drug, AZT, was an antiretroviral that had proven in clinical trials to delay the onset of AIDS in HIV-positive patients. Patients who received AZT treatment remained HIV-positive—the drug wasn’t a cure—but it allowed them to live a bit longer with the virus. The drug was adding a few months or years to patients’ lives. And it often had awful side effects. In fact, the symptoms caused by AZT were sometimes worse than those of the disease itself. The anemia was crippling; it caused hemophiliac-like symptoms. Some people were taken off the drug because it was too toxic, but often, doing so would cause a spike in AIDS symptoms. It was a horrible way to survive. I remember some of my friends taking AZT and suffering terrible nausea and vomiting. A few developed anemia. But after years of utter despair, this drug was a ray of hope. It was something to slow the disease down, and it promised more treatments to come.