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    Articles > Prescription for Suicide


Gays, AZT and Mind Control

By Ian Young
New York Native, 12 Sept. 1988

During that strange period of American history the 1950's, there was a twisted and virulently homophobic psychiatrist called Edmund Bergler. Like Dr. Goebbels, Bergler was a master of propaganda primarily at homosexuals. Homosexuals he kept repeating, were all very sick people; they were "injustice collectors."

As a teenager, eager to read all I could on "the subject," I came across one of Bergler's books. I remember throwing it into a garbage bin in Queens Park - partly out of disgust, partly because I didn't want any other teenager read those lies about himself and believe them. I knew even then that what Dr. Bergler said was not true and that Bergler was evil.

But I have to admit that I was bothered for another reason too. I was bothered by the part of the truth that all good lies contain. Many of us - in those days and since - have been injustice collectors, self-identified victims. We had been programmed to be. We paid $60 an hour (when $60 was worth some thing!) to lie on Dr. Berglers couch and listen to his hatred and cruelty every week, didn't we? Until one day the mind control finally detonated, and we jumped out of a window.

By the '80's, times had changed. By 1982 it was "not fashionable any more, let alone politically correct," wrote the New York poet and novelist George Whitmore, "to link 'self-destructive' any 'gay' in the same sentence." Nevertheless, he admitted, "the bodies piled up around me. The roster of gay death lengthened." Times had not changed enough to stop that.

The plain fact of it is that this society wants homosexual people to die. It kills us directly, as it killed Harvey Milk (who prophesied not only his own murder but the method his murderer would use), or indirectly, in a variety of ways. One of the most time-honoured and effective of those ways has been suicide.

When I was compiling a bibliography of gay literature, I perused many hundreds of novels. An astonishing number of them ended - or began - with the suicide, murder or premature death of a homosexual. It was thought to be the only way such a story could end in a society which offered no place whatever for its gay people. There were no morality, no code of conduct, no social roles, no guidelines of any kind. Except suicide.

The gay liberation movement was meant to stop all that. And things did improve. As World War II had done thirty years earlier, gay liberation ended the isolation of many gay people, and so opened the closet door for millions. Unfortunately, for many of those millions, emergence from the familiar closet into a starkly unwelcoming society was no liberation but only a change of loneliness.

George Whitmore was able to describe that loneliness too, from the inside. In a 1975 article entitled "Living Alone" (published in the Allen Young/Karia Jay anthology After You're Out) he wrote about "an invisible piece of furniture in your apartment that you stumble over all the time - it's a mass of loneliness." And that loneliness itself became for many yet another addiction. George Whitmore again, in the same piece: "Many of us who have put sex in its place are troubled by its frequent coincidence with love. Love," he said, "screws everything up."

Whitmore suggested that coming out means "severing" yourself from own past, becoming "unmoored," "floating" and continually warned that gay society is, to use his own challing phrase, a "leper colony." "We were branded the enemy, exiled, ultimately invisible and isolated. Some of us are dead. That's the final kind of alone." And in his conclusion, Whitmore counted himself among those who "have found the means of being alone for the rest of our lives"- an honest observation that did not bode well.

Whitmore realized then, as many of us did not, that "Stonewall might have coincided with Judy's death, and the party line might have dictated that there were no more victims, but the phenomenon of gay self-destruction, of course, did not disappear."

We in the gay movement certainly realized that we had implacable enemies (not the least of them the medical establishment, for Dr. Bergler was by no means alone in his views) but what we did not realize was the dept of the psychological damage done by thousands of years of repression, sex-negativism and self-hatred, and by deep wounds inflicted on young lives by families and others - wounds that in many cases would never really heal. For many, the closet door opened only into a prison. And in such dark places, there are many ways to commit suicide, with or without the help of doctors.

Whitmore saw what many less troubled observers preferred to ignore, and a later article published in The Advocate, "After a 'Career' in Suicide: Choosing to Live" provided some painful insights into the condition of many homosexual men in this society. In this piece, written in 1982 just as the AIDS epidemic began to impinge on the gay consciousness, Whitmore wrote of his own three attempts at suicide, the first when he was only seventeen. In one attempt, he overdosed on drugs prescribed to "calm" him. Suicide was something, he says, that he applied himself to "with dedication... Like so many others. I was doing everything I could not to come to terms with an identity. I'd been carefully taught to abhor."

He wrote wryly that when he came to New York City and came out, since he "was no longer teetering on window ledges high above traffic, I didn't really appreciate the sophisticated means of suicide at my disposal. Now, when I do think of what I did to myself, the crap I poured into my system, the lost weekends, the risks I felt compelled to take - everything we considered 'normal' in the process of coming out - it makes my hair stand on end. I can only conclude that accidentally I continued to live... For I was judge, jury and executioner the likes of which the Moral Majority would fervently applaud." He was just one of many homosexual men who - still - internalized self-hatred and embraced victimhood.

Whitmore continued his "After a 'Career' in Suicide" piece with some more up-to-date experiences: "It is 1981 and I am in the basement of the Mineshaft (a New York gay sex club). Like most everyone else here, I have come to prove a point. The point is that we can do this without flinching. Oh, we might say we come her to have fun or let of steam, but there is an undercurrent here, a subtext. It is the element of risk. It is not just risk of disease. It is that we have learned to witness certain acts with a jaded and sceptical eye... It looks dangerous, but is it really? This is the phenomenology of risk, and we are expert at it."

The Mineshaft and other bath-houses and blackroom bars wedded, in Whitmore's words, "nihilism to lust" in a kind of synthetic pornographic rebellion, in living colour. For "how long," he asked, "could you live in the constant anxiety of placating a stern and forgiving God knowing how warped imperfect, how queer you were?"- until finally, with gay lib, we got the chance to act like rebels.

"The Rebel," George wrote, "Is a consummate symbol of reaction, because that's all he does; his life revolves around rebellion, fury and denial." He is "a Pyrrhic symbol of our revolt, an emblem of misdirected rage... If society tells him the only way he can be gay is to crawl around on his hands and knees in a sewer five nights a week, the Rebel will oblige... And having fervently embraced the role assigned to him - that of outcast and pariah - he must never relent, relax or weaken. He is, instead, driven to further extremities of alienation. Intimacy becomes impossible, even the one- night stand variety. The only actual relationship is a dim, ironic camaraderie with his fellows."

Few recognized as George did in those days that "this is how many gay men have misunderstood and internalized the message of gay liberation: sadly, losing themselves in the process... Almost all our common commercial institutions have been set up to promulgate a Rebel lifestyle. The most visible aspects of gay life are his, and the ones glorified by most of our magazines and even our ideologues." This new lifestyle George called a "new kind of victimization, this unexamined life." He might have put it another way, quoting his own essay on loneliness of seven years before: "Love screws everything up."

For there remained in the '70s and '80s a perverse need on the party of so many men to gravitate to dark and dangerous places and faceless partners, as if still trapped in a lingering nightmare of past oppression. Whitmore remarked early in the '80s that "self-delusion makes it mandatory to rationalize" this behaviour as merely a matter of taste; he saw it instead as having "a great deal to do with how we perceive ourselves collectively and as individuals."

"We are now," he wrote, "a minority characterized more for our diseases and disabilities than for our achievements and aspirations; we are still handy victims, used to the role" and still "Not necessarily obliged to question" specific "substances or behaviours."

George's articles were the kind of tough, painful, critical (and self-critical) pieces that appear all to seldom in the gay press. I remembered them, and would have occasion to return to them years later, at a time when victimhood and death are more prominent than ever in our minds.

The AIDS crisis has delivered yet another generation of homosexual men, in the adversity of their illness, into the hands of the medical establishment. And that establishment is prescribing for us a drug (of course!), a drug called AZT, claimed originally to prolong life (a little, perhaps) for those of us who have been told their chances of survival are practically nil. If one chooses to look a little deeper into the facts about this drug, what one finds is pretty disturbing.

AZT, also known as Retrovir, was "discovered" in 1964 at a National Cancer Institute lab in Detroit. Plans to try the drug as an anti-cancer agent were dropped when it proved fat too toxic. (Though AZT kills cancer cells and some viruses, it seems it also kills just about everything else too.)

Twenty years later, one of the N.C.I. doctors turned his research over to the Burroughs-Wellcome Company, a giant U.S. pharmaceutical corporation centred in England, and suggested the drug to be used to treat AIDS. Burroughs-Wellcome took the opportunity and proceeded to gain control over the world's supply of thymidine, the raw material used in AZT. So, as Dr. Joel Lexchin put it in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "Without a patent, or even unique knowledge, Burroughs has legally ensured that no one else will be able to make or sell AZT."

Having cornered the AZT market, Burroughs-Wellcome then proposed the drug as an AIDS treatment - at the price of $1,000 a month per patient, a price which, as The Economist put it, "has more to do with the temporary monopoly which Burroughs-Wellcome enjoys than with research costs."

The U.S. government, not known for its independence from the huge drug corporations, effectively gave Burroughs-Wellcome "the final say as to whether a whole range of important studies involving the drug could be conducted at all," according to Dr. Lexchin. And Burroughs delayed and interfered with a number of proposed studies, while going ahead with its own studies of AZT by itself and in combination with other drugs manufactured by Burroughs.

After an aborted series of supposedly "double-blind" tests on AIDS patients, use of AZT was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The main report of these tests appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 23, 1987) as a two part article.

There is no space here for a detailed analysis of the report, but rather than being cause for optimism, it instead fuelled a great deal of scepticism about the drug itself and the way the test were carried out. Statistical tables included in the test seemed to make no sense, and when asked by one researcher to explain the tables, neither of the principal authors of the report could do so. One author told the researcher to "forget about the tables!" The researcher was John Lauritsen, a long-time gay liberationist, trained in statistical analysis, and he decided to look more deeply into AZT and the suspicious testing procedures.

Project Inform in San Francisco had been able to obtain additional material from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by invoking the Freedom of Information Act. Though this material had been heavily censored before release, Lauritsen was able to discover on examining it that it revealed "the dark underside of the double-blind placebo controlled trial: falsification of data, sloppiness, confusion, lack of control - things not even hinted at in the Journal reports." Lauritsen set out his investigation into AZT in some detail in the New York Native. Among his conclusions was the following.

"AZT is not a cure for AIDS. AZT's alleged benefits are not backed up by hard data, and are not sufficient to compensate for the drug's known toxicities. Recovery from AIDS will come from strengthening the body, not poisoning it. Do not take, prescribe, or recommend AZT."

The New York Times seemed to concur. In its issue of March 17, 1987, it concluded, "The chemical has a destructive effect on the bone marrow, the ultimate source of the blood cells of the immune system." One physician experienced in treating AIDS patients, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, put it very simply: "AZT is incompatible with life."

But Burroughs-Wellcome stands to make billions of dollars over the next few years from sales of AZT. According to the Globe and Mail, "demand for shares in Wellcome PLC were keeping Wall Street's international desks hopping... Share prices went from around $2.45 before the announcement that AZT was useful against AIDS to a high of between $6.75 and $8.50 in 1987." The British newspaper The Guardian observed: "Without reference to morality of patient welfare, [Burroughs-Wellcome] is making as much money as it can, as quickly a it can, to cover its costs and then to maximize profits for shareholders."

A lawsuit brought by the National Gay rights Advocates charges that the FDA and the National Institutes of Health, the two agencies that approve and regulate AIDS drugs, approved AZT in return for "research funding" (a monetary donation) from Burroughs-Wellcome. Apparently, the same day the payment arrived at the FDA, Burroughs-Wellcome was granted exclusive rights to market AZT!

On the basis of the fraudulent and censored FDA tests, the Canadian government is now allowing AZT to be distributed in Canada - for sick and healthy gay men alike. For doctors, prompted by the Burroughs company, are increasingly prescribing AZT for perfectly healthy people. (The rationalization is that AZT "intervenes" to prevent AIDS from occurring.) Two of my friends have been advised to take AZT by their doctors. One of them needed treatment for a bruise on his leg, the other for an eczema rash. Both are otherwise healthy and neither has been tested for HIV antibodies.

This widespread distribution of AZT among gays threatens to irreversibly damage the bone marrow and immune systems of many thousands of men - men who then will require frequent blood transfusions, with all the additional complications and dangers that will entail. One can only agree with John Lauritsen's comment that "it is neither unreasonable nor overly emotional to regard these efforts to put healthy people on a drug regimen that will destroy their bone marrow as attempts at mass murder."

If this were not terrifying enough, the method of AZT administration is down-right hair raising, especially considering the self-destructive tendencies so vividly described by George Whitmore and others as lingering in the minds of many gay men.

People, both sick and healthy, who have been persuaded by their doctors to take AZT, carry with them 24 hours a day a smooth, slick, smartly designed plastic box in a tasteful shade of off-white. This box has two small square black buttons marked STOP and START, and two small triangles, one pointing up, the other pointing down. The box is equipped with a beeper which goes off every for hours, night and day, ensuring that the carrier never gets a good night's sleep.

Here is a good description of the beeper box's effect, from "Bearing Witness," a New York Times article by a man who carries one: 'The beeper has a loud and insistent tone, like the shrill pips you hear when a truck is backing up on the street. Ask anyone who carries one - these devices insidiously change your life. You're always on the alert, anticipating that chirp, scheming to turn off in time before it can detonate [sic]. It's relentless."

Systematically interrupted sleep is one of the most effective devices of mind control. It "induces in the captive a curious state of unreality in which he is easily influenced and directed by any stable, consistent rules," states one authority, who adds, "Sexual asceticism is almost invariably imposed and as the captive progress, actual forms of physical punishment, sometimes self-inflicted, may be added."

Two decades ago, at the beginning of gay liberation, who of us, having thrown all the tales of injustice collecting into the trash, would have believed that in just a few years, all over North America gay men would signal them to swallow a few capsules of a slow-acting, deadly poison, voluntarily - without flinching.

I doubt that even dour George Whitmore would have believed that. Yet only four years after 1984, George Whitmore carries such a box; for he is the author of the Times Magazine article, and a photo accompanying the article shows George sitting with a white-coated doctor in front of an enormous machine which apparently is monitoring the level of AZT in George's blood.

Having followed George's story in his own words for over a decade, and having met him now and again during my New York days in the late '70's, naturally I feel for him. I can only admire his stoicism, his honesty, and the bravery of his witness. But I can't help feeling as well that those two aspects of his being are still, more intensely than ever, bound together and struggling within his mind: the clear-seeing survivor, and the suicide. That struggle, I think, is to a greater or lesser extent in all of us who live in this agonizingly anti-gay society.

The terrible facts of AIDS and AZT will certainly play a part in determining the future of us gay people. For now, it is essential that we listen to voices like George Whitmore's that we consider his story and his struggle, and in every way we can, root for the survivor - in George and in each of us. *


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