For one who presumably has devoted so much of his professional life to the study of the brain, Richard Restak seems to have failed to employ fully his own in his narrow approach to the admittedly serious problem of AIDS. His Post article, "Worry About Survival of Society First, Then AIDS Victims' Rights" (Outlook, Sept. 8) suffers from the classic case of the glaring omission.
While no one can quarrel with Restak's expressed concern about the pandemic proportions of the AIDS problem, he fails to mention one of the major reasons for the growing hysteria over this serious disease: its well- established link with the homosexual community.
AIDS is not just a disease to be feared and combated. It is a disease firmly associated in the public mind with homosexuals. My own recent experience convinces me that from a very early age Americans, especially boys, are taught "homophobia," -- "an irrational fear, intolerance or dread of gay people." Imagine how much more potent this homophobia becomes once attached to a dread disease that rightfully requires caution and concerted medical and public response.
The sources of homophobia are countless and subtle but often quite blatant. Peers ridicule a fellow adolescent who may appear effeminate. Persons fearful of their own sexual identity react with great negativity because of their own discomfort. Remarks and jokes about "fags," "queers" and "dykes" abound in offices and locker rooms. And now these guaranteed laugh lines are augmented by Rock Hudson and AIDS "jokes."
Anti-gay feeling can also be traced to ignorance, misinformation and, unfortunately, deeply held religious beliefs, all willingly exploited by unprincipled politicians and groups eager to make political and dollar capital out of an inflammatory issue. Such mass hysteria distorts the thinking of even decent people who might otherwise stop to consider the truth of prejudiced statements.
Restak might have addressed why the federal government was so hesitant to go forward with research into the causes, effects and possible cures for AIDS. It was not until the AIDS epidemic was shown to affect all Americans, not just gays, that federal agencies and Congress started to provide the funds necessary to meet the crisis. AIDS was largely ignored by the media until recently, though AIDS researchers have known that in its areas of origin in Africa it has been a predominantly heterosexually spread disease. That fearful knowledge has suddenly increased American public interest in research, prevention and cure.
Now the U.S. military has ordered the approved AIDS test to be administered to all new recruits and possibly even to those already in the military. We are told that a positive reaction, indicating exposure to AIDS, will be grounds for exclusion or dismissal (albeit "honorable") from the military. There are those who rightfully fear that the notoriously anti-gay military establishment may finally have found the test it believes will weed out "queers" from its ranks, and it can do so under the cloak of a "health emergency."
Meanwhile some states, such as Colorado, are establishing health policies requiring the reporting by doctors of all suspected cases of AIDS to state authorities, including those who may test positive on simple exposure to AIDS. What revelation of such information can do to the professional and personal life of an individual is beyond catastrophic. And insurance companies, health and otherwise, are waiting in the wings to use such information as a grounds for denial of coverage. All this in spite of the fact that it appears that the great majority of persons who may have been exposed to AIDS do not eventually contract the disease itself. Is it any wonder that most gay people fear a nationwide system of government identification?
Restak is simply wrong when he says that "AIDS is not about civil rights, political power or "alternative life styles." He is correct when he says it must be treated as a disease with all its potentially fatal consequences. But that approach cannot be divorced from the association of AIDS with gay people and the prejudice and discrimination that exists against them. That is why appropriate legal and political safeguards against such prejudice must be considered and enacted, certainly consistent with up-to-date medical research.