Gays, AZT and Mind Control
New York Native, 12 Sept. 1988
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
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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.)
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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. *