succumbing to peer pressure

Thursday, July 08, 2004

If you ever wondered what sort of work I want to do "when I grow up," or why I am so passionate about public health, read "And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts. (Sudiptya - I don't think it will change your life, but it is a good read) Or, if you are somewhat daunted by a 600+ page book on the history of the AIDS epidemic, simply rent the HBO movie, which I mentioned in an earlier post. Actually, it was just random chance that I decided to rent that movie the night I finished my exams, but since then, I've been slightly obsessed.

The process of reading this book veers between heartbreaking and infuriating and inspiring. As Randy Shilts says in the prologue, "Because of their efforts, the story of politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic is, ultimately, a tale of courage as well as cowardice, compassion as well as bigotry, inspiration as well as venality, and redemption as well as despair."

One of the first things that is so heartbreaking and frustrating is an account of the 1980 Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, celebrating much the same things I lauded about the Atlanta parade just a few days ago. Feels like in two and half decades we've barely gotten anywhere. Not to mention all the repetition of how there's no money to study this disease because it's only killing gays, and the only time it gets any real media attention is when the first few heterosexuals are stricken. I can imagine a nearly identical argument today. "Don't mention homosexuals in your grant proposal, it will only get sent back." "Don't create panic among the homophobes or give them a reason to start a backlash against the few small gains homosexuals have managed to make."

In the book I am once again reminded of why, during Matthew Modine's portrayal of his outburst at a meeting with blood bank officials, I was prompted to state, I could marry a man like Don Francis. He was a researcher for the CDC, and although the book often reads like fiction, making it a little too easy to think of everyone as characters, he is a very real person. At one point, using money and resources from his own projects and center, since the American government couldn't be bothered to cough up any funding, Francis realizes that continuing research on "gay cancer" could cost him his job, but he is determined to keep at it anyway. How often do you come across someone willing to risk their career for what they believe is right, for the betterment of others?

Although fate or the powers that be or whatever you want to call it was against us, and the spreading of AIDS was inevitable, the severity of the crisis could have been reduced if more people had done their jobs, if fewer researchers were blinded by the belief that a disease might actually care about a person's sexuality, and if the crawling gears of government could have been forced to move a little faster. And countless lives might have been saved. And if that doesn't motivate you to want to change things, I don't know what will.


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