[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ctober marks the anniversary of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS-related causes at age fifty-nine. October 2, to be exact. It had only been a few short months since the hunky leading man of the 1950s and 1960s had held a press conference with his Pillow Talk costar and friend Doris Day to announce the launch of her new cable show, and the press and the public began buzzing about his haggard appearance. A few weeks later, Hudson collapsed while staying at a Paris hotel and his publicist released a statement to explain: the effects of liver cancer. Then, a few days later, another press statement was released. Hudson was living with AIDS. He had been diagnosed as HIV-positive a year earlier. In that time, he had traveled to France for tests and potential treatments unavailable in the U.S.
AIDS panic, driven by the press and the public, swirled in the wake of his announcement and death, propelled at least in part about the gossip-ready fact that he had been gay, though closeted by Hollywood. Hudson himself seemingly fended off the moral judgments surrounding sex and HIV at the time by theorizing that he most likely contracted the virus from HIV-infected blood transfusions during heart bypass surgery in 1981. But, despite all the negativity that followed his disclosure, Rock Hudson propelled a wave of positivity. His willingness to talk about the disease helped the mainstream see the human side of the epidemic; people outside of the LGBT community and urban centers could no longer distance themselves from HIV and pretend it didn’t exist. His life and death not only amplified awareness—it produced a surge in research funding. Hudson himself bequested $250,000, the same amount Air France charged him to charter a 747 back to the States. This bequest set up the Rock Hudson Memorial Fund of AIDS Research, which helped launch amfAR, an AIDS research organization that had been cofounded by his close friend Elizabeth Taylor.
How times have changed. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS are still nettled by stigma and discrimination, and disease risk has been linked to social drivers like racism, gender oppression, and homophobia. And we still face barriers to care, financial and otherwise. We still risk pariah status if we disclose. Yet, the voices of the past, those who can no longer speak, still resonate through us. Their echoes have become our rallying cries. I don’t remember a time when so many individuals living with the disease have stepped forward to become advocates.
How times have changed. Jane Fowler, an octogenarian and this month’s Ruby Comer interview, speaks about living with HIV whenever she can. She is a good example of the phenomenal women that our columnist Tyeshia Alston, a woman living with HIV/AIDS and founder of SAAVED, Inc., speaks about this month in her effort to empower female voices. That empowerment is also on display in “When Dogs Heal,” our feature about a photo project of the same name that showcases the images and stories of individuals living with HIV/AIDS and their therapeutic relationships with their canine companions.
How times have changed. Now leading men can be leaders in the AIDS fight. In this month’s cover story by A&U’s Sean Black, we feature Gilles Marini. He is secure enough in his skin to embrace his gay fans. He is laser-focused on his career, and yet he makes time to participate in Kiehl’s LifeRide, a benefit for amfAR. Hailing from France and now a U.S. citizen, he is committed to making sure the public and our children are hyperaware of HIV/AIDS and the need for compassion and research funding: “It isn’t a victory until we end this disease.”
None of this would have happened thirty years ago. None of this would have happened without Rock Hudson. Or amfAR. Or activists and researchers. Or the thousands of people who stood up for health justice along the way. And that’s an anniversary we should celebrate.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.