World AIDS Day, Randy Shilts, his book and why it matters.


I’m aware that Randy Shilts’ 1987 book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is not without its detractors. In particular, his speculation about Patient Zero was controversial from the very start.

Almost three decades later, we know so much more. This fascinating podcast is well worth 30 minutes of your time, and let me tell you: I’m not a science kind of guy.

The Cell That Started a Pandemic (Radiolab)

Gaetan Dugas … was soon dubbed Patient Zero, and labeled by the media as the cause of the AIDS epidemic. But as Carl Zimmer and David Quammen explain, Dugas was absolutely not Patient Zero.

On the occasion of World AIDS Day 2015, Shilts’ name entered my mind, and I combed my bookshelves in search of And the Band Played On. Alas, it appears to have disappeared, perhaps as a loaner never returned. I’ve spent the evening thinking about it.

Obviously, journalists strive for accuracy. Three decades later, we can look at Shilts’ book and uncover inaccuracies. But I’d argue that these errors are far less important than his achievement in bringing consciousness of AIDS to a wider audience, and moreover, in educating these readers about what it means to be gay.

By which I mean: I needed to be taught these things, and when I read Shilts’ book in 1990, finally I learned some of them.

Shilts died of AIDS-related causes in 1994. His book was tremendously influential for me, and I plan to buy another copy.