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The early days of
AIDS: A congressman remembers

The early days of
AIDS: A congressman remembers


In public office since the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) served as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment and became one of the most vocal advocates for increased federal spending on the disease during the budget tug-of-war of the 1980s. More recently, his office has turned its efforts to scrutinizing President Bush's federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programs, releasing a report that sharply criticizes their curricula as false and misleading.'s Benjamin Ryan talked to the congressman about Presidents Reagan's and George H.W. Bush's response to the outbreak, what we should have done to curb the spread of AIDS, how to curb anti-condom politics, and more.

What is your first memory of the AIDS epidemic?

In 1981 we were battling the Reagan budget, which called for deep cuts in public health programs, medical services, a lot of domestic programs. And then we started hearing from the Centers for Disease Control about a rare form of cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma. And that it seemed to be affecting gay men in a couple of cities. But the alarming part of it was that it seemed to be spreading very, very fast. I was quite shocked at it, because it looked like it was going to multiply geometrically. This was before we even knew the word "AIDS." It was very perplexing.

We held over 3,000 hearings over the years, and we got a lot of attention and a lot of new money devoted to research, prevention, and then, ultimately, treatment, especially after we authored the Ryan White Act and it became law.

You were one of the few early congressional advocates for federal spending on AIDS. What motivated your advocacy?

As the chairman of the Health and Environment Subcommittee, I knew this to be a major health issue. It was affecting gay men, which meant that it wasn't being paid a lot of attention to by the mainstream press. And there were people in right-wing Republican circles who were urging President Reagan not to talk about it, not to be personally involved. On the other hand, we were working with those here in the Department of Health and Human Services -- even people who were appointed by President Reagan--who were very concerned by this public health problem. I represented a district with a large gay population, and I felt even more incumbent on being involved in the issue. But I think I would've been involved under any circumstances, because this loomed as such an enormous tragedy, and we could see that from the very beginning.

What kind of reaction did you get from your constituents about your support for AIDS funding in the early years? How did that reaction change as the 1980s wore on?

At first I remember people saying to me, "Don't devote too much money for research for AIDS. It's still a small group and we've got to spend money fighting cancer and other diseases that affect so many other people." I made the point to them and consistently to everybody that the money we spent on AIDS research was going to have a multiplying effect, because we were going to learn about this disease and it would help us learn about other diseases as well. But we also needed to act with urgency, because while all those other diseases affected more people, AIDS was spreading quite rapidly.

In "And the Band Played On," Randy Shilts' appraisal of your commitment to the AIDS fight is occasionally lukewarm. He feels you and others in Congress could have fought harder. Looking back, do you agree with him?

I don't agree with him. I don't think there's anything that we could have done that we didn't do. We were faced with an administration that was not eager to be helpful. President Reagan wouldn't even mention the word "AIDS" until he was practically out the door as president. And we were faced with a hint of what we're now dealing with, and that was a governing philosophy by those in power who wanted to shortchange domestic government spending so that they could give tax breaks to the wealthy.

The controversial 2003 Showtime miniseries "The Reagans" would have us believe homophobia was to blame for the president's reluctance to deal with AIDS. Others would say extreme fiscal conservatism was the culprit.

I suppose it was a combination of all of those things. I don't think it was until Elizabeth Taylor went in to see him in person, to talk about the issue [that he made his first address about AIDS, in 1987]. I think Elizabeth Taylor was a reminder to him of all the people he knew in the industry who were gay, and that he couldn't in good conscience ignore the problem any longer.

Some argue that if the U.S. had called the alarm much sooner and paid as much attention to AIDS as they did to legionnaire's disease, toxic shock syndrome, SARS or avian flu, the epidemic would have been largely thwarted in this country. What do you think?

I certainly think that we were at a disadvantage in trying to get attention to the issue, because it first affected gay men, and then later it was also affecting drug users -- two groups that were marginalized in the minds of the American people and the press. Had it affected the white middle-class heterosexual population, I think there would have seen a much stronger reaction.

On the other hand, the gay community was a group that was able to direct a lot of its attention and resources to dealing with the disease. I remember the group ACT-UP, and how people from that organization learned the Food and Drug Administration laws better than the lawyers at the FDA. So they could go to that agency and insist that some drugs be used, even though [the drugs] didn't have final [FDA] approval, particularly since many of these people wouldn't live to the point where the drug was approved. The FDA finally accepted their argument that there should be some "compassionate use" of the drugs before final approval.

What do you think about the first President Bush's response to AIDS?

Not too much better than Reagan's. He did keep [Surgeon General] C. Everett Koop on from the Reagan days. Koop was a great hero in talking about this epidemic.

AIDS brought homosexuality to American dinner table conversation. How was this new topic greeted on Capitol Hill in the 1980s?

I think it was an eye-opener to many people around the country. Because they recognized that there were people they knew, people they were related to, people in their own families who were gay--not just some group that was ghettoized in some place.

How would you define the difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to AIDS politics in 2006?

I don't want to over-generalize. The Republicans right now are so captive of the extremist religious right wing, which has hostility to homosexuals, but for the moment they're focused on gay marriage. There were [prominent] Republicans in the Reagan and Bush administrations who were very anxious to fight this epidemic. But by and large, I think we had a problem on the Republican side.

I think it's been helpful that we have this report out in the public, because it highlights how taxpayers' dollars are being wasted on programs that are ineffective. The curricula used in public schools around the country, as well as in some private schools that have received sexual abstinence-only funding, have just misrepresented basic public health information--even to the point where they were saying that AIDS is spread through sweat and tears. The harm was also in the fact that young people taking abstinence-only programs without taking basic public health information were more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies--because they were being kept ignorant.

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