AIDS Is Still With Us

(“The Photo That Changed the Face of AIDS” — Click here for full-sized image & story)

World AIDS Day was yesterday; today I got this note from commentor JCT:

Life re-ran this commentary/gallery yesterday in honor of AIDS awareness day and it is one of the most stunning examples of the power of photojournalism ever. I saw the original article when I was a medical student (it was discussed all over the hospital as I went to school in NYC) and over 20 years later it still takes my breath away.

Two years later I was an intern in a Manhattan medical center where we served a very large catchment that was being devastated by HIV/AIDS. People forget what it was like before the true drug cocktail approaches and we were still trying to figure out how to use protease inhibitors. At my hospital there was a large HIV/AIDS ward, though the inpatients virtually all had full-blown AIDS by then. They were always trying to figure out how to staff that ward because it was so harrowing and I was part of an “experiment” where we didn’t have overnight call but instead had extended duty hours. It was basically like living on that floor for a month. I can barely describe the experience. Suffice it to say, by then most of the patients were women in their late 20’s-early 30’s because the men were all dead. At least one patient per day died and every death created orphans. I can still remember those rooms with patients who all looked just like David Kirby, crying children and stricken mothers who now had to raise the children. Or worse, the patients who had been abandoned by their families and were alone. By the end of the month I was changed forever. It was so difficult the administration halted the staffing because it was so hard on the interns. In retrospect, I feel lucky for the experience and I am a better doctor because of it.

It’s over 20 years later and I can still remember many of the faces of the patients there and that Life gallery brought it all back. I still remember one of the only times in my adult life that I had a raised voice argument with another person – a quiet homophobe who intimated that these patients “deserved” what happened to them. People still believe that crap today, but back then it was rampant.

In any case, this is something that everyone should see and remember.

From the Life article:

“Early on,” Frare says of her time at Pater Noster House, “I asked David if he minded me taking pictures, and he said, ‘That’s fine, as long as it’s not for personal profit.’ To this day I don’t take any money for the picture. But David was an activist, and he wanted to get the word out there about how devastating AIDS was to families and communities. Honestly, I think he was a lot more in tune with how important these photos might become.”…

Frare’s photograph of David’s family comforting him in the hour of his death earned accolades, including a World Press Photo Award, when published in LIFE, but it became positively notorious two years later when Benetton used a colorized version of the photo in a provocative ad campaign. Individuals and groups ranging from Roman Catholics (who felt the picture mocked classical imagery of Mary cradling Christ after his crucifixion) to AIDS activists (furious at what they saw as corporate exploitation of death in order to sell T-shirts) voiced outrage. England’s high-profile AIDS charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust, called for a ban of the ad, labeling it offensive and unethical, while powerhouse fashion magazines like Elle, Vogue and Marie Claire refused to run it. Calling for a boycott of Benetton, London’s Sunday Times argued that “the only way to stop this madness is to vote with our cash.”

“We never had any reservations about allowing Benetton to use Therese’s photograph in that ad,” David Kirby’s mother, Kay, told “What I objected to was everybody who put their two cents in about how outrageous they thought it was, when nobody knew anything about us, or about David. My son more or less starved to death at the end,” she said, bluntly, describing one of the grisly side effects of the disease. “We just felt it was time that people saw the truth about AIDS, and if Benetton could help in that effort, fine. That ad was the last chance for people to see David — a marker, to show that he was once here, among us.”…

Take my word: It’s worth reading the whole thing.

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41 replies
  1. 1
    cathyx says:

    I was in college when this became huge. It was a definite death sentence back then. It sure isn’t now, thank goodness.

  2. 2
    debbie says:

    People forget what it was like before the true drug cocktail approaches and we were still trying to figure out how to use protease inhibitors.

    A couple of years ago I rewatched “Philadelphia,” and there’s an extra feature on the DVD. It’s a documentary of an AIDs clinic just when they were beginning AZT. It’s just a bunch of guys sitting around, being infused and telling their stories. A very stark reminder of the horror AIDs used to be.

  3. 3
    SRW1 says:

    “… these patients “deserved” what happened to them.”

    Wasn’t that initially the quasi position of the Reagan administration?

  4. 4

    I was serving in the Royal Navy in 1986-1988 in Hong Kong and I remember receiving a research paper for dissemination among the masses (it came in the form of a DCI – Defense Counsel Instruction) basically talking about the advent of HIV/AIDS and what could be expected of its spread. The Doctor who wrote the paper was laying out what could be expected of the spread of the disease not only among gays but among hetrosexuals, and what could be expected in the future as to a push for a cure. I will never forget the final sentence of the paper. “It is a very exciting time to be alive”. It gave me chills at how someone could be so clinical.

  5. 5
    cckids says:

    I made my kids read “And the Band Played On” to give them a view of how people with AIDS were treated & the huge shift society has made in the years since. Neither of them could believe the callousness of Reagan & co, the outright hatred shown to gays. Their shock at how different things were gives me hope for the future.

  6. 6
    👽 Martin says:

    @cathyx: I was as well. Anyone else remember GRID and the 4 Hs: Homosexuals, Heroin users, Hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Created a whole new reason to discriminate against African Americans and turn the wick up on the drug war a bit more.

  7. 7
    Persia says:

    @SRW1: As much as they talked about it at all, yes.

  8. 8
  9. 9
    TaMara (BHF) says:

    I lost two of my uncles, my cousin and his girlfriend from AIDS. It hit the hemophiliac community extremely hard.

  10. 10
    TheMightyTrowel says:

    I was born in the early 80s (don’t hurt me!) and my earliest memories of the outside world (well, outside my family) are listening to NPR reporting live as the Berlin Wall came down and watching Aids activists protesting on the nightly news.

  11. 11
    Keith G says:

    Thanks for posting this. The fight goes on.

    Tomorrow morning I will head off to my gig as a care giver at a hospice for those suffering the final effects of HIV related illness. The face of this plague has changed so very much.

    Fifteen years ago, we saw mostly younger white gay men, many of whom had never been diagnosed before a wave of serious illness racked their bodies. Now, our residents are older (often 50+), many do not identify as gay or bi, more than half are persons of color, and many have a history of serious drug use and residential instability.

    A number are dying of liver failure, due to Hep C, or chronic pulmonary disease. Various soft tissue cancers are common. About a third come to us with AIDS Dementia Complex. Relatively few die due to the traditional opportunistic diseases associated with AIDS 10-20 years ago.

    Since we accept residents who have received a six month mortality prognosis, many of our folks are fully able to self care and move about when they first arrive. One of our main goals is to help them find comfort, support and acceptance as they face the changes they are experiencing.

    I have been lucky to have been in the company of these people. They have taught me a lot – many laughs, many friendships.

    Twenty-one years ago, I tested positive. For a while it fucked me up (this was the same time I was burying so many of my friends), but eventually I found a way to deal with it. Because I had access to first rate medical care, once I got my head on correct, I got impossibly healthy. Access to dynamic healthcare saved my life as I watched twenty of my closest friends die off.

    It’s certainly now within our reach to get to a point where this disease no longer is able to interrupt the lives of our neighbors. Education, prevention, and access to proactive medical care are the keys.

  12. 12
    BonnyAnne says:

    And The Band Played On is such an amazing book. I don’t remember the early early days of AIDS, but growing up in the 80s was really surreal in that respect. For a whole summer I was scared to use a public toilet seat, and everyone was whispering that it might be spread by mosquitoes, like malaria…

  13. 13

    I spent a decade of my life at the center of the holocaust–L.A., Dallas, Orlando, etc. The experience shaped my identity in ways too deep for me to articulate. Every year for 10 years, the human beings I loved most in the world died of AIDS. I remember lying to the landlord about what was wrong with my “roommate” so that we wouldn’t lose the apartment. Watching the disease chop little pieces at a time off of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. Listening to the sneering whispers of hospital personnel and the arrogant lectures of doctors who proclaimed confidently what they called “the judgment of God.” Watching my friends and lovers curl up and die like cats in an alley while people walked around them because they didn’t want to “catch anything”. It changed the way I saw everything, including how I saw my country. Created equal, my ass.

  14. 14

    @TheMightyTrowel: I remember exactly where I was when the wall came down, my parents and I were in Married Quarters outside HMS Cochrane as they were visiting for the week and I managed to snag a vacant house from the Married Quarter people. We sat there in the living room and watched on the crappy, cheap tv as people started taking hammers to it. It was stunning.

  15. 15
    JCT says:

    @BonnyAnne: In college I remember driving across the Bay Bridge in SF listening to some commentator say on the radio that the “cause” of AIDS was amyl nitrate. This is right about when they closed the bath houses.

  16. 16
    greennotGreen says:

    I also liked “The Band Played On” though the author was mistaken, I strongly believe, in blaming the research community for dragging their feet. Science is not fast. How long and how much money have we invested in cancer, and people still die of cancer every day. HIV is a tricky virus – lots of viruses are tricky – so getting a real cure and a vaccine are not simple propositions. It doesn’t mean no one has been trying, even from the very beginning.

  17. 17
    Keith G says:


    And The Band Played On is certainly an important work. And there is another important film that came out in 1989, Longtime Companion. I very highly recommend it.

    While “And The Band” is a historic guide to that period, “Companion” is an emotional guide. It certainly is an insiders view of how our friends and lovers, and ourselves, were in turn gobsmacked then devastated by the tsunami-like advance of this epidemic.

    As the Reverend intimated above, we were ripped apart and we will never fully heal.

  18. 18
    JCJ says:

    I was not in an epicenter like JCT was in New York, but when I did my internship in internal medicine I was in Lansing Michigan there were several hemophilia patients there with HIV/AIDS. Later as a resident in radiation oncology in Indianapolis we treated several patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma. I remember a young man with AIDS from a small town in northern Indiana who came to the clinic with an AIDS related malignancy. He was the first patient I had seen with a tremendous amount of support from his parents. It really did put a human touch on an awful disease. One of my fellow residents was a born-again sort who basically had a “they deserve it” attitude. It always amazed me how he would complain about how much it bothered him to take care of AIDS patients. I hope he grew a better brain later.

  19. 19
    Gin & Tonic says:

    I lived in NYC during the plague years. If you weren’t there, or in SF, it can’t be explained.

  20. 20
    Softail says:

    @Keith G:

    I have lived in San Francisco since the 70s so I was at ground zero and I also work in biomedical research. I lost *all* my friends from that era. There were two of us for awhile but Richard passed away several years ago. I made new friends and then they all died. My doctor told me the only thing that they knew to compare it to was Auschwitz survivors. I have no idea why I among all of them survived.

    While there was obviously some homophobia in every community I saw first hand that there was no holding back in research on AIDS in the wider medical community. You are right, science takes time… unfortunately. We are also very lucky in some ways because we were at the edge of several seminal breakthroughs in immunology. If it had happened 10 years sooner there would have been much less chance of any sensible response.

  21. 21
    quannlace says:

    I remember the early 80’s when the first news stories started coming about this mysterious ‘wasting disease’ that didn’t have a name yet. And then the bizarre fears- could it be spread thru mosquito bites? Drinking glasses or swimming pools?
    And then, of course, all the incredibly cruel, homophobe pronouncements. Don’t recall the name, but there was one dickwad who proposed putting all HIV positive people in special ‘camps.’ Either that or force them to have an identifying tattoo on their abdomen.

  22. 22
    Softail says:

    That would be Condeleezza Rice while she was at Hoover Institute.

  23. 23
    ruemara says:

    I’m lucky. Most of the gay men I knew were coming out in the age of AIDS and were big into the safe sex. As far as I know, no one got sick, no one had to die, but we’re all freaked out by sex. Many of our seniors, people I looked up to, died in pain and the tales of abandonment and blame, they wounded me deeply. No one should have to go through that. I think, because of all this, because of becoming an adult in the early times of AIDS Awareness, I resolved that I would never, ever turn my back on LGBT rights. Gay/straight/whatever should never need to be a descriptor, all are human and have rights. I’m proud of all that has been accomplished and even if there is a cure tomorrow, I think that there is much more work to do.

  24. 24
    Full Metal Wingnut says:

    All the other egregious shit aside, had Reagan merely been a plain vanilla caretaker president, his leaving HIV/AIDS patients to drop dead and virtually ignoring the greatest public health crisis of my lifetime would alone qualify him as one of the worst presidents in our history. I spit on his grave. Absolutely unforgivable and despicable.

    Also, I don’t even want to know how Andrew Sullivan ever professed to admire the man. The cognitive dissonance in his head must be deafening.

  25. 25
    Mr Stagger Lee says:

    @TaMara (BHF): It was Ryan White that put AIDS in the face of Middle America. The shameful action of his community in Indiana basically forced Americans to deal with disease as an human tragedy not as an something in the Gay Community, people can ignore.

  26. 26
    Full Metal Wingnut says:

    Glad I left the Catholic Church. Offensive? Mimicking Mary cradling Jesus imagery? Fucking microcephalics.

  27. 27
    Softail says:

    @Mr Stagger Lee:
    And Elizabeth Taylor, who was immensely important. Also when Princess Dianna visited New York and picked up that kid with AIDS and held him it was a BFD.

  28. 28
    General Stuck says:

    @The Very Reverend Crimson Fire of compassion:

    Though I’m not gay, in 1985, I made my first trip to the emergency room for a kidney stone. I was pissing tomato juice, and a nurse assigned to look after me, went bananas. Screaming she wasn’t going to die from working in a hospital, and stomped off crying and shit. I didn’t know what to think, and since I didn’t know I had a kidney stone at that point, I figured I was going to die of whatever that nurse thought I had. When the doctor showed up I asked him wtf was going on. And he told me folks around there were spooked cause of AIDS.

  29. 29
    Roger Moore says:

    In a lot of ways, AIDS helped to create your kids’ attitude toward gays. Most prominent gays stayed deep in the closet until AIDS forced them out. Every one who finally came out made it harder to support the idea that homosexuality was something to be ashamed of and made it easier for the next person to come out. I’m not sure we would have had the critical mass of famous people coming out if it hadn’t been for AIDS. It’s a silver lining in an otherwise very black cloud.

  30. 30
    Roger Moore says:


    I remember exactly where I was when the wall came down,

    I don’t remember exactly where I was when The Wall came down, but I definitely remember visiting East Germany in the summer of 1989. You could tell that big things were brewing, though I wasn’t far enough sighted to see just how big. The most important thing was that people had finally realized that Perestroika really did mean they could speak their minds about how much they hated the way things were run without having to worry about the secret police, and they were starting to do it. It was the first time in my life that I really felt like I was living through a major historical event.

  31. 31
    Ramalama says:

    Thank you so much for posting this reminder.

    It’s really a miracle of science that HIV is no longer an instant death sentence.

    I’d like to give a shout out for a great book by Rebecca Brown called “The Gifts of the Body” about a caretaker for an AIDS hospice. Superb and moving. If anyone’s looking for something good to read. I always appreciate recommendations for good reading.

  32. 32
    Kyle says:

    @cckids: Thank you.

  33. 33
    The prophet Nostradumbass says:

    @Softail: actually, I think it was William F. Buckley. He certainly advocated tattooing HIV-positive people.

  34. 34
    Kyle says:

    @BonnyAnne: It is such a great book. Reading it was like being punched in the stomach repeatedly. I haven’t read it in years and wondered if knowing what we know now, if it wouldn’t be that much more painful.

    Also, too: The documentary We Were There is a great movie about folks who, um, were there.

  35. 35
    JustAnotherBob says:

    In defense of the people who reacted with fear during the early years, before the route of transmission was well understood….

    We, the folks who lived back then, had contacted measles, mumps, chicken pox, and, worst of all, polio from simple contact with others. We didn’t have to share body fluids in order to get serious diseases. And we knew about mosquitoes and malaria. We knew how one caught TB.

    There was no reason to believe that this new disease could not also be spread by simple contact. Or by insects. People were flailing around looking for a better understanding.

    One of the ideas that was investigated was the possibility that poppers lowered resistance and made infection more likely.

    It took some time to understand what was happening. One of my friends was buried before the disease even had a name much less an explanation.

  36. 36
    Mnemosyne says:


    As far as I know, no one got sick, no one had to die, but we’re all freaked out by sex.

    I wanted to emphasize this on behalf of those of us who were too young to actually know anyone with AIDS (unless we had family members who were hemophiliacs). I was 14 when AIDS started to hit the news and 16 when Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to admit he had it. And, yes, sex was not regarded as a fun activity that you could just experiment with. Giving a blowjob could literally fucking kill you.

    When you’re just starting to figure out how this whole sex and love and romance thing works, it’s pretty damaging to get a government brochure in the mail detailing how you can try and prevent sex from killing you.

    I think people really underestimate how instrumental the AIDS crisis was in energizing conservatives because now they finally had PROOF that the damned dirty hippies were dangerous. The fact that they were, you know, both morally and factually wrong didn’t change the emotions that they fed from.

  37. 37
    martian says:

    That photo gallery is stunning. The other pictures of David and the Kirby family. How beautiful David’s friend and caretaker Peta was and the terrifying and heartbreaking rapidity of his decline. It’s overwhelming to think about all of the people swimming in grief, struggling to stay afloat, but there is so much love and greatness of spirit captured in those images.

    Do not read the comments after the article. Do. Not.

  38. 38
    Softail says:

    @The prophet Nostradumbass:
    Definitely was Condi along with a couple coauthors at Hoover who floated the idea about concentration camps. Probably were others but we raised quite a stink about it on campus at the time.

  39. 39

    @Softail: I would be interested to read that. I have lived in Palo Alto for most of my life, and don’t remember it. Can you cite something about it?

  40. 40
    graves007 says:

    I havent read the book but did see the movie “And The Band Played On”. I thought it was excellent and illuminating.

  41. 41

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