Gay Despair, Gay Suspicion
If gay men in early 1988 were apt to distrust Gallo, they were also inclined to be open to heretical views. This was a particular
moment in the history of the AIDS epidemic in gay communities, one marked both by profound desperation and the emergence of a new wave of militant activism. Gay men were wracked with frustration by the slow rate of progress in the development of treatments for AIDS, and those testing positive for HIV antibodies were increasingly pessimistic about their likelihood of avoiding illness and eventual death. Earlier on, the claim that AIDS was caused by a virus had resonated with gay concerns about avoiding discrimination and stigmatization. But this changed with reports by public health officials that the percentage of those infected with the virus who would go on to develop AIDS was not, as first believed, a small minority of 5 or 10 percent but in fact appeared to be at least 70 percent and might, in the absence of new treatments, rise as high as 100 percent. These tidings led to a deepening gloom between 1985 and 1988. For the largest and most established gay communities, where local newspapers routinely reported that one out of every two gay men probably was infected, such news can only be described as devastating. AZT at this point was prescribed only for people who already had AIDS (at a cost of about ten thousand dollars a year per person—and it was failing to keep them alive for very long). Some vocal spokespersons in gay communities, particularly in New York, argued that AZT did more harm than good. And there were no approved medications that antibody-positive people could take to keep them from progressing to an—apparently inevitable—AIDS diagnosis.
One response to these difficult times was a rebirth of activism, epitomized by the actions of groups like ACT UP and the San Francisco-based advocacy group Project Inform, that focused on eliminating the bottlenecks in the federal drug approval process, challenging the pharmaceutical houses over price-gouging for medications, and—as a popular slogan had it—getting "drugs into bodies." But a second response to the mood of desperation was a surge of interest in heretical views about AIDS. The AIDS establishment had failed to deliver; perhaps it was time to listen to some new voices. Understandably enough, cofactor theories were particularly attractive since they offered hope that not all those who were HIV antibody positive would actually develop AIDS. But more radical theories that disputed the HIV-AIDS link altogether had a certain appeal as well. Indeed, when Duesberg, along with Joan McKenna (director of an independent organization called the Institute for Thermobaric Studies, in Berkeley, and an advocate of the view that AIDS is actually a disguised form of syphilis),
was invited to speak at a public forum in San Francisco's heavily gay Castro district in January 1988, they were met by a standing-room-only crowd of six hundred. Many more were turned away at the door, according to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, "reflecting the growing currency that a number of unconventional theories about the cause of AIDS are gaining in the gay community." Duesberg himself "received a hero's welcome" at the forum, in the words of an article published in the San Francisco Sentinel , a gay newsweekly.
That Duesberg should inspire the admiration of the gay masses was not without irony, given that the researcher at this point appeared to endorse the same immune overload hypothesis that, earlier in the epidemic, had often been characterized as homophobic and had been criticized for "blaming the victim." But initially people knew little about Duesberg. When interviewed by the Sentinel , Duesberg refused to give an alternative explanation for what causes AIDS, saying only, "I can't answer that." Shortly afterward, however, the Oakland Tribune quoted him as explaining: "I suspect we are dealing with an environmental lifestyle disease that has hit drug users, hemophiliacs and some gay communities the hardest. The trauma of anal intercourse could also be a factor. They could have used too many drugs, been too promiscuous, or had their immune systems weakened by venereal diseases, foreign antigens and antibiotics." More damningly, the February 2 Village Voice quoted Duesberg as saying that the epidemic was "caused by a lifestyle that was criminal twenty years ago." Days later, this remark became GCN 's "Quote of the Week."
As statements such as these became known, Duesberg lost any chance of sustaining large-scale support in gay communities. By February 1988, negative articles about Duesberg began to appear, including the Voice article, written by medical reporter Ann Fettner, called "Dealing with Duesberg: Bad Science Makes Strange Bedfellows." Duesberg's views on causation, Fettner wrote, constituted "a stunning regression to 1982, when everything under the sun, and gay practices in particular, were being blamed for the outbreak of the disease."
Yet even as Duesberg's stock was beginning to fall in gay communities, he was gaining considerable attention in the mass media and even in some government circles. On February 9, the refusal of mainstream AIDS researchers to confront Duesberg was blasted by Jack Anderson,
the syndicated columnist and well-known muckraker. According to Anderson, Harvey Bialy, the editor of Bio/Technology , had been planning a workshop called "How Does HIV Cause AIDS?" and a senior White House domestic policy analyst named Jim Warner had offered to cohost it. Warner was reported to be "frustrated about the inadequate response he had gotten to Duesberg's theory"; sponsorship by the White House "would guarantee the attendance of Gallo and other experts." Yet shortly before the conference was to take place, it was abruptly removed from the White House calendar. According to one editor at Bio/Technology , "The impression was that the pressure came from the NIH." When Anderson asked about the conference, Warner replied, "I can't talk about that." Anderson also noted that Gallo refused to return his phone calls.