October 2, 2015, marks the 30th anniversary of Rock Hudson's death.
At a press conference on July 25, 1985, Hudson announced that he had AIDS. His film co-star, Doris Day, was by his side. This was the "shot heard 'round the world." It was the absolute moment that changed public awareness of the epidemic.
When I mention this incident to my younger friends (much younger, in their 20s, but even some in their 30's), I am not shocked to hear that many are unaware of this significant event. But I must admit I am stunned when some tell me that they have never even heard of either Hudson or Day. This runs the spectrum all across the Kinsey scale of sexual orientation, but to gay men "of a certain age" (i.e. me), it is inconceivable that any man worthy of being the G in LGBT would not be at least somewhat familiar with the filmography and dulcet tones of our Doris. I suppose this would be equivalent to a Gen Y'ers unfamiliarity with Cher, or a Millenniums' of Britney.
I remember the press conference vividly. I was working at the time as an AIDS information hotline counselor for the New York City Department of Health. The virus was then called HTLV-III. I was 27 years old
We worked in a square, state-funded, industrial room with dull, informational posters scotch-taped to the walls, with a corner always curled up or down until someone would smash a palm on the fallen edge so that the poster could stay up for at least one more day.
I remember the sssss of the radiator in the winter and grimy paint-peeling windows we had to lift from the bottom to open. I remember the smells of pencil shavings and Xerox paper and the ring of the telephones (a loud brrrinngg brrrinngg) and the small square red lights flashing, each one representing a person on 'hold'.
On July 25, 1985, I entered the hotline office and the phones were ringing at their usual intermittent pace. There were four of us on the shift, answering the push-button phones. We would talk and listen with an ear crooked to the receiver, cradled on shoulder, while the opposite hand grasped a pencil that checked off boxes on a mimeographed form. In the "Reason For Call" category, the majority of the checkmarks ended up in the "Worried Well" box: mosquitos, swimming pools, casual contact with supposed members of a high risk group and highly imaginative scenarios depicting every possible "what if" situation.
A television was wheeled into the office. Rock Hudson (born Leroy Harold Scherer, Jr.) appeared with Doris at his side, looking shockingly gaunt and frail, a shadow of his former matinee idol self. He announced that he had AIDS and that he had recently flown to Paris to receive a treatment that was being developed there. It was called HPA-23.
To the uninitiated: In the 1960s, Rock Hudson and Doris Day were the King and Queen of fluffy romantic comedies: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. In those movies, Day was apple-cheeked, jaunty and forever virginal. Hudson was virile, square-jawed and a playboy. He had a combative, yet breezy, chemistry on film and, privately, they were friends.
Now, years later, they were back in Hollywood. With his former co-star at his side, Hudson, the square-jawed pal of Ronald Reagan, unwillingly exploded the steel closet door of the AIDS epidemic. The shock of this revelation was many-fold: AIDS was considered to be a gay disease, and here was the fantasy he-man -- a likable, non-threatening Hollywood action figure, admired by men and lusted after by women, proclaiming that he was gay.
AIDS became a visible manifestation of gay mens' "otherness." With K.S. lesions and severe weight loss, many men were now forced to tell friends and family that not only did they have an infectious disease that would kill them, but they were also leading a secretly gay life.
At the press conference, Doris Day showed no sign of fear or pity or sadness. In fact, she glowed with pride as she purposefully gave her co-star a big kiss on the cheek. It was a wonderful and important moment: America's sweetheart showing the world that she was not afraid of contracting AIDS through casual contact.
Did Rock understand his place in history? Both he and Doris undoubtedly knew the importance of their press conference. But they did not know, we did not know, no one knew, how much it really signified. It was the beginning. It was the shot heard 'round the world, the first blast from the cannon's mouth, it was the beginning of the end.
From that moment on, the phones never stopped ringing. The Centers for Disease Control established the National AIDS Hotline, and I became its Director. People with AIDS were ostracized, demonized, shamed and shunned. Our President, Ronald Reagan, did not publicly speak about the epidemic until April, 1987. By then, over 20,000 Americans had died of the disease.
Rock Hudson died nine weeks later, on October 2, 1985. For the next ten years, the storm would rage, uncontrollably, despite the occasional and hopeful emergence of possible treatments.