Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rock Hudson's Revelation

It was 30 years ago today that Rock Hudson and his old friend and co–star, Doris Day, held a press conference to announce her new TV cable show Doris Day's Best Friends. Hudson was going to be a guest on the show. It was a milestone moment.

All the talk after the press conference wasn't about Day's TV show, however. It was about Hudson, how emaciated he looked, how incomprehensible his speech pattern was. He was practically unrecognizable. There had been rumors about Hudson's health for a long time, and his appearance with Day revived them.

A couple of days later, Hudson traveled to Paris for another round of treatment and collapsed in his hotel room, after which his publicist confirmed that Hudson was ill but told everyone it was inoperable liver cancer. The publicist denied that Hudson suffered from AIDS — but then, only a few days later, he backpedaled and confirmed that Hudson did have AIDS and had been diagnosed with the virus more than a year earlier. Hudson hypothesized that he had been exposed to the virus through a blood transfusion when he had heart bypass surgery — long before anyone knew that blood carried the AIDS virus.

When it was confirmed that Hudson had AIDS, that triggered a lot of speculation about whether Hudson was homosexual. I don't recall if Hudson ever acknowledged that he was gay; I'm inclined to think he didn't, but People magazine ran a cover story about Hudson that discussed his AIDS diagnosis in the context of his sexuality about a month and a half before his death.

The 1980s were a trip. Ask any people you know who are old enough to remember, and they'll tell you the same thing — if not in those words, then in words to that effect.

It was a decade that often provided examples of how kind and generous people can be — and, just as often, provided examples of how petty people can be, too. I guess most decades are like that, but the 1980s seemed to have even more than most.

In such an atmosphere, it was initially regarded as socially acceptable to be dying of liver cancer — but not of AIDS. Then, when it was impossible to continue denying that he was afflicted with AIDS, it became important for the public to believe that Hudson got sick through no fault of his own. That was the phrase that separated the good AIDS sufferers from the bad ones. It was the phrase that cast the blame. Did the sufferer get sick through his own recklessness? Or did he get sick through someone else's negligence? (And, if Hudson had been exposed to the virus via transfusion, it couldn't even be called negligence — because it would be years before anyone knew that AIDS could be transmitted through blood.)

I was in college when the '80s began. At that time, most people were just beginning to hear about a strange new disease that was, apparently, 100% fatal, but before it killed you, it stripped you of your immunities, making you vulnerable to all sorts of things that healthy people shrug off. The vast majority of Americans tended to feel secure because the disease only appeared to be striking certain groups — hemophiliacs, heroin users, Haitians and homosexuals. In fact, it could have been called the "4 H" disease. (Actually, I think it may have been called that for awhile.)

They didn't know what to call it, frankly. Because it seemed to be striking the homosexual demographic disproportionately, it was initially called GRID for Gay–Related Immune Deficiency. Understandably, the gay community objected, feeling that the name unfairly singled out homosexuals when the record clearly showed that non–homosexuals were getting the disease, too.

And even though a non–judgmental name — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) — was being used officially by the fall of 1982, the perception persisted that homosexuals had put the health of the rest of the population at risk.

People do strange things when they are frightened. I knew that from my studies of history, and AIDS gave me proof that irrational fear wasn't something that was unique to past generations. Human beings continue to have the potential for irrational fear; I guess they always will.

At first, AIDS was thought to be something of a medical anomaly, like Legionnaires' disease. It didn't take long for people to realize it was not a medical anomaly, but nevertheless the impression that homosexuals, through their reckless behavior, had put everyone at risk persisted. For a time, many people refused to use public restrooms or water fountains, afraid that AIDS sufferers might have been there before them.

It is necessary, you see, to recall the conditions that existed in the 1980s to understand what a big deal it was when Rock Hudson's affliction with AIDS became known in the summer of 1985. As imperfect as his acknowledgement was, it was a milestone in the AIDS story. Until that time, it was hard to get funding for research into the disease; consequently, it took years for the medical community even to discover that it was passed from one person to the next through bodily fluids.

Doctors learned the highest concentrations of the disease could be found in blood and semen; it was present in much lower levels in tears and saliva. Thus, the odds against someone getting sick from exposure to tears or saliva were considerable. Even so, in light of the fact that Hudson's diagnosis was more than a year old, people in the media speculated about the passionate kiss he had shared with actress Linda Evans on Dynasty. Hudson knew he was sick when the scene was filmed, but he did not tell Evans, prompting a certain amount of panic. Some actresses insisted on having kisses written out of their scripts, and the Screen Actors Guild adopted new rules regarding "open–mouth kissing." Actors had to be notified in advance — and were immune from penalty if they decided not to participate.

After the revelation that Hudson, one of Hollywood's most popular leading men, was sick with AIDS, roughly $2 million was raised, and Congress set aside more than $200 million to seek a cure.

Hudson's condition created issues for President Ronald Reagan, who was seen by a significant portion of the population as being indifferent to AIDS. But Reagan and his wife Nancy were Hudson's friends. On the strength of that friendship, a lot of people expected Reagan to break his long public silence on the subject.

But Reagan made no statement about Hudson, even when he had the opportunity at a press conference a couple of weeks before Hudson died.

He did, however, issue a brief statement on the occasion of Hudson's death on Oct. 2, 1985: "Nancy and I are saddened by the news of Rock Hudson's death. He will always be remembered for his dynamic impact on the film industry, and fans all over the world will certainly mourn his loss. He will be remembered for his humanity, his sympathetic spirit and well–deserved reputation for kindness. May God rest his soul."

Hudson's affliction and death was a milestone, however belated, in the fight against AIDS. People began talking about it. It was — and still is — a long way from a cure, but, as the old saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.