Shilts Publishes

Randy Shilts, in his groundbreaking book And the Band Played On, documented the beginning of the AIDS epidemic with a critical view of the U.S. government, gay community leaders, and American mass media. The book was the first report on the epidemic to reach a wide, general readership.

Summary of Event

Randy Shilts’s book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, based on more than one thousand interviews and research spanning five years, provided a chronicle Literature;on HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS] of the early years of the AIDS epidemic to everyday Americans. In the years immediately preceding its 1987 publication, much of the country had little understanding of this new disease, which in the early years had appeared mostly among homosexual men. Panic over the containment and prevention of AIDS gripped the country. People with AIDS or suspected to have AIDS found themselves turned away from hospitals, evicted from apartments, and even barred from public swimming pools with increasing frequency during this panic. [kw]Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On (1987)
[kw]Publishes And the Band Played On, Shilts (1987)
[kw]And the Band Played On, Shilts Publishes (1987)
And the Band Played On (book)
HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];critical literature on[literature on]
[c]Literature;1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On[1730]
[c]HIV-AIDS;1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On[1730]
[c]Publications;1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On[1730]
[c]Health and medicine;1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On[1730]
Shilts, Randy
Reagan, Ronald
Dugas, Gaëtan

And the Band Played On, initially rejected for publication by more than one dozen potential publishers, offered an explanation of the early AIDS crisis and a cast of characters responsible for its spread in the United States. Climbing to the top of best-seller lists in 1987, Shilts’s easy to read and engagingly written book educated and calmed mainstream America. And the Band Played On was a finalist for the National Book Award National Book Award;And the Band Played On in nonfiction and won Shilts the American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Author Award in 1988. In 1993, Hollywood adapted And the Band Played On
And the Band Played On (television movie) into a television movie that initially aired on the Home Box Office network.

The book was as much about chronicling the early AIDS crisis as it was about assigning responsibility for the unchecked spread of the disease. Shilts placed President Ronald Reagan at the center of government inaction and showed Reagan’s unwillingness to discuss the epidemic in public. He also explored the administration’s tactic of ignoring the growing public health problems of the early 1980’s. Reagan’s homophobia and indifference, according to Shilts, resulted in government delays in granting research funding, education, and drug approval. In And the Band Played On, Reagan was as much the villain of the early 1980’s as the AIDS virus itself.

However, in And the Band Played On, Reagan and the federal government did not work alone; Shilts also indicted a full cast of scientific researchers, bathhouse Bathhouses, criticism of owners, gay activists, and even some people with AIDS. Throughout the book, Shilts suggested that AIDS was somehow a result of the overt sexuality of 1970’s gay liberation, an interpretation that drew much criticism from the gay community. One of the most controversial members of Shilts’s cast was Québécois flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, whom Shilts dubbed “patient zero.” “Patient zero,” and AIDS epidemic[Patient zero] According to Shilts, Dugas was almost single-handedly responsible for the introduction and spread of HIV to numerous gay communities around the world. Epidemiologists, many of whom Shilts chronicles in the book, disavowed the notion of a patient zero upon the release of the book and pointed to more complicated explanations for the spread of HIV.

While controversial and flawed in places, And the Band Played On arguably served as the most influential book about AIDS in the 1980’s. No other book matched its accessibility or popularity in mainstream America.

Upon handing in the final version of the book manuscript, Shilts tested positive for HIV antibodies, the virus that causes AIDS. He kept his HIV status secret until 1993, when he became very ill; keeping his HIV status secret was a decision which drew criticism from the gay community. Shilts died of complications of AIDS in 1994.


Randy Shilts’s interpretation of events surrounding the early AIDS epidemic spawned a number of controversies and debates among activists, scientists, gay and lesbian community leaders, and, later, historians. While informed by facts and interviews, And the Band Played On reflects the anger and politics brewing in the gay community in the mid-1980’s as well as the scientific unknowns about HIV-AIDS.

Many who bore the brunt of blame in And the Band Played On also faced the rage and protests of groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) ACT UP;and AIDS epidemic[AIDS epidemic] and Lesbian Avengers. Lesbian Avengers;and AIDS epidemic[AIDS epidemic] These groups, which had formed around the same time as the book’s release, gained momentum as the book became popular, and in the years following 1987 witnessed some of the largest victories for AIDS activists. AIDS activism Using civil disobedience and lobbying, activists fought for and won fast-track approval for AIDS medications, increased research funding, protective legislation, and education. Ronald Reagan had left office in 1988; he would be the only AIDS-era president not to have an AIDS platform.

While not directly responsible for all of these advancements, And the Band Played On publicized the issues surrounding AIDS and heightened awareness and understanding of the disease among everyday people. This increased awareness resulted as much from Shilts’s public presence as it did from the book itself: Upon the book’s release, Shilts toured the country, giving numerous speeches, appearing on morning television talk shows, and giving interviews that broadcast over radio. While AIDS, by 1987, had made the cover of many national publications such as Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, Shilts’s book was the first journalistic work of such magnitude written for a wide audience. And the Band Played On (book)
HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];critical literature on[literature on]

Further Reading

  • Berkowitz, Richard. Stayin’ Alive: The Invention of Safe Sex. Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press, 2003.
  • Crimp, Douglas. Melancholia and Moralism: Essays On AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
  • _______, ed. AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988.
  • Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
  • _______. “Patient Zero: The Man Who Brought the AIDS Epidemic to California.” California 12, no. 10 (October, 1987): 96-99, 149-151, 160.

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered

October 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

September, 1986: AZT Treats People with AIDS

November, 1986: Californians Reject LaRouche’s Quarantine Initiative

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

June 25, 1993: Clinton Appoints First AIDS Czar