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On AIDS 25th Anniversary, the Media Get the Story Right, But the Date Wrong

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This June 5th the media are gearing up for a spate of articles and features and retrospectives on the 25th anniversary of AIDS. The weird news is, they have the date wrong.

The real anniversary of AIDS isn't June 5th. It's today, May 18. And therein lies a symbolic tale.

Some background: On June 5th, 1981, the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a brief item about a strange cluster of pneumonia cases in five otherwise healthy gay men. The MMWR report is widely considered the very first public mention, anywhere in the world, of what would eventually be called AIDS. And so June 5th has always been, as it were, the plague's birthday.

But in fact the MMWR report was not the first mention of AIDS in the media. The first mention was almost three weeks earlier, on May 18th, 1981. But it's generally ignored because the venue was a gay newspaper called The New York Native. And because the author, the Native's intrepid medical reporter, Dr. Lawrence D. Mass, was a gay writer. Nonetheless, Larry Mass's article sounded the tocsin that was heard by my generation of gay men, the bell that announced the coming devastation of our lives. To us, AIDS dates from that article.

For several years after the spring of 1981, the mainstream media enforced an almost total blackout on AIDS reporting. In one of the most breathtaking lapses in modern media history, most editors and reporters did not feel that a disease afflicting and killing gay men was "news." So they ignored it. And the government under Ronald Reagan did, if anything, even less.

Gay men were forced to look to each other for information, and it was reporting by Larry Mass and other gay journalists, not anything by the government or the mainstream media, that initially warned some of us and saved at least some gay lives - including, probably, my own. It wasn't until Rock Hudson's diagnosis in 1985 that AIDS became a big story for Time and Newsweek and Abe Rosenthal's New York Times. But alas, by that time, up to 70% of gay men - 70% of my friends - were already infected. Almost all eventually died.

One of the main reasons things got to that catastrophic state was because of the shameful media blackout, which prevented most gay men from being warned. After all, not everybody had access to big-city gay newspapers, or read them if they did have access. The tiny NY Native hardly had the clout or circulation of The NY Times, or Newsweek, or NBC News.

Eventually, way too late, mainstream AIDS reporting kicked into high gear, prompted in large part by activist groups like ACT UP. But one vestige of the original blackout remains: The fact that today's media still overlook (or are totally unaware of) Larry Mass's pioneering reporting, and center their anniversary coverage around the CDC's article instead.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that the media plan to revisit AIDS on its quarter century anniversary. The plague that wiped out half my gay generation is still a massive global killer, and still needs all the attention it can get.

But while we use this moment to contemplate the future, let's also use it to reflect on the errors and omissions of the past, and maybe correct a few.

Not least of which is the undeniable fact that the first mention of AIDS in print, anywhere on earth, was on May 18th, not June 5th, in an article by a gay man, not the CDC. And it was gay people like Larry Mass, not the government or the mainstream media, who first and most persistently sounded the alarm.

Society didn't listen to them then. But, after a quarter of a century, it's time we recognized them now.