Anthony Fauci has said AIDS activists who protested outside his office in the 1980s and burned effigies of his body were “justified in their concerns”.
Fauci has worked at the forefront of the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 was far from his first experience dealing with infectious disease.
He served as director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Diseases in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic reared its head, killing swathes of queer people. He was heavily criticised at the time by activists such as Larry Kramer, who famously accused him of “murder”.
Speaking to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air show on Wednesday night (3 February), Fauci said there is a “stark contrast” between COVID-deniers who have sent him death threats throughout the coronavirus pandemic and the AIDS activists who protested against him in the 80s.
“The activists were justified in their concerns that the government, even though they weren’t doing it deliberately, were not actually giving them a seat at the table to be able to have their own input into things that would ultimately affect their lives,” Fauci said.
“So even though they were very theatrical – they were very iconoclastic – they seemed like they were threatening, but never for a single moment did I ever feel myself threatened by the AIDS activists.”
Anthony Fauci went on to say that AIDS activists were “right” in their belief that the federal government was not listening to their “valid concerns” about the epidemic.
“Not only were they not threatening at all in a violent way, ultimately they were on the right side of history,” he added.
Fauci said he reached a “turning point” with AIDS activists when he tried to put himself in their shoes.
“When you listened to what they were saying and put aside the dramatics, the theatrics, the iconoclastic behaviour, and listened to what they said, which I did, because I felt, if these young men were going to this extent, they must be suffering terribly,” Fauci said.
“So I tried to become, and easily became, as empathetic as I could possibly be and say: ‘Let me put myself in their shoes. If I were in their position, what would I be doing?’ And I rapidly came to the conclusion that, if I were in their position, I would be doing exactly what they were doing.”
After that realisation, Fauci invited AIDS activists to meet with him to figure out how they could “work together”. After weeks of discussions, they brought AIDS activists into the fight against the disease by putting them on advisory committees and in clinical trials.
“We integrated the activists into the process that we were doing that very, very heavily involved them, their lives, and their health, and things really turned around,” he said.
Anthony Fauci visited gay saunas to understand how HIV was spreading
Elsewhere in the interview, Fauci said he visited gay saunas and bars in the early years of the AIDS epidemic in an effort to understand how the virus was spreading. His research began before they had even identified what was causing young gay men to die.
“We were seeing these large numbers of mostly gay men who were formerly otherwise well who were being devastated by this terrible mysterious disease, and it was so concentrated in the gay community that I really wanted to get a feel for what was going on there that would lead to this explosion of a sexually transmitted disease,” Fauci said.
“I went into the bathhouses to essentially see what was going on, and the epidemiologist in me went, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a perfect setup for an explosion of a sexually transmitted disease.’ And the same thing going to the gay bars and seeing what was going on, and it gave me a great insight into the explosiveness of the outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease.”
He also said then-president Ronald Reagan‘s support from the religious right “to some extent” impacted on the federal government’s response to the outbreak, noting that the Christian groups that supported him had no empathy “in any way” for the LGBT+ community.
The result, Anthony Fauci said, was that Reagan avoided using the pulpit of the presidency to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, which ultimately stunted efforts to educate the public on the nature of HIV.