When AIDS Was Funny

Angels in America takes us back to the AIDS pandemic in America. The play is set in 1985, 4 years after the epidemic first started and 2 years before President Reagan publicly addressed the epidemic by its name (see here for a detailed timeline of HIV/AIDS in America compiled by New York City AIDS Memorial).

The first cases were reported in 1981. By 1984, 7,239 had been infected and 5,596 died. In 1985, there was an 89 percent increase in new AIDS cases compared with the previous year. The severity of the epidemic and the apathy of the Reagan administration formed a stark contrast in those days. Here’s an exchange between Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, and journalist Lester Kinsolving in 1982:

Kinsolving: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?

Speakes: AIDS? I haven’t got anything on it.

Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.[Press pool laughter.] No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.

Speakes: I don’t have it. [Press pool laughter.] Do you?

Kinsolving: You don’t have it? Well, I’m relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: Do you?

Kinsolving: No, I don’t.

Speakes: You didn’t answer my question. How do you know? [Press pool laughter.]

Kinsolving: Does the president — in other words, the White House — look on this as a great joke?

Speakes: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

The jokes from the White House carried on despite soaring death tolls. Here is another exchange between the two 2 years later in 1984:

Speakes: Lester is beginning to circle now. He’s moving up front. Go ahead.

Kinsolving: Since the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report is going to… [Press pool laughter.]

Speakes: This is going to be an AIDS question.

Kinsolving: …that an estimated…

Speakes: You were close.

Kinsolving: Can I ask the question, Larry? That an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the president, as commander in chief, take steps to protect armed forces, food, and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they bed typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services?

Speakes: I don’t know.

Kinsolving: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry?

Speakes: I haven’t heard him express concern.

Kinsolving: That seems to have evoked such jocular reaction here. [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: It isn’t only the jocks, Lester.

Unidentified person: Has he sworn off water faucets now?

Kinsolving: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?

Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything. Sorry.

Kinsolving: You mean he has expressed no opinion about this epidemic

Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven’t asked him about it.

Kinsolving: Will you ask him, Larry?

Speakes: Have you been checked? [Press pool laughter.]

Unidentified person: Is the president going to ban mouth-to-mouth kissing?

Kinsolving: What? Pardon? I didn’t hear your answer.

Speakes: [Laughs.] Ah, it’s hard work. I don’t get paid enough. Um. Is there anything else we need to do here?

(For the audio of this exchange, see this documentary called When AIDS was Funny

Besides the homophobic jokes and infuriating indifference, we also see how little was known about AIDS (people still thought it could be transmitted through saliva and was only a problem within the gay community, thus, called the “gay plague”) despite the fact that 3 years have passed since the epidemic started–a telltale sign of the lack of research done at the time. To get more funding for research, over 100,000 people marched in San Francisco during the 1984 Democratic National Convention. 

An AIDS protest in front of the White House. ACT UP activists hang a "Silence = Death" banner on the White House gates.
An AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) protest in front of the White House (Jeffrey Markowitz / Sygma / Getty)

All this time, the President was silent. It was only until the spring of 1987 did Reagan give a public speech about AIDS at the Third International Conference on AIDS in Washington DC. By that time, 36,058 Americans had been infected and 20,849 had died. The speech was also no more than a mere acknowledgment of the happenings: “But let’s be honest with ourselves. ‘AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral’. After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” There was no mention of increasing government-funded research, but rather to “give educators accurate information about the disease. How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not Government.”

More on Reagan and the AIDS: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/04/full-story-nancy-reagan-and-aids-crisis/618552/


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  1. You do a great job helping us to understand the anger Kushner’s play directs at Reagan. I’ve heard the clip that this transcript comes from and it *is* infuriating.

  2. Great post, and that’s an incredible exchange. Did some googling about Lester Kinsolving only to find he himself was quite the homophobe (https://web.archive.org/web/20090119131555/http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=11089). He referred to gay rights organizations as the “sodomy lobby.” Thought that was interesting.

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