Brian’s post today about Pat Robertson’s absurd theory of AIDS transmission – that gay men wear sharp rings in order to cut people they shake hands with and deliberately infect them with HIV – seems like something out of another era.
In fact, it seems like something out of Robertson’s own past.
The early days of the AIDS epidemic coincided with the high point of Robertson’s career, as he ran for the Republican nomination for the presidency. In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Robertson was an outspoken opponent of the federal funding of AIDS research, which he claimed was unnecessary because if gay men simply ceased their “aberrant lifestyle” then “there wouldn’t be any more AIDS epidemic.”
In a 1987 interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Robertson, who had just won the Republican presidential straw polls in Iowa and Michigan and was preparing for the one in Florida, claimed that the answer to the AIDS epidemic was “the self-restraint of the people” rather than research into a cure for AIDS. "The homosexuals are saying, 'Spend more government money, find a cure so we can continue our aberrant lifestyle.' And I don`t think that is a proper request," he said.
The candidate, affably parrying questions and occasionally leaning back to roar with laughter, turned serious and offered his toughest comments when asked about the subject of AIDS.
"The answer is the self-restraint of the people," Robertson said. "The homosexuals are saying, 'Spend more government money, find a cure so we can continue our aberrant lifestyle.' And I don't think that is a proper request."
About 92 percent of AIDS victims are male homosexuals or intravenous drug users, he said. "If those two groups would stop that type of conduct there wouldn't be any more AIDs epidemic."
Spending more than the half-billion dollars devoted to research would be a futile way of throwing money at a medical problem, he said.
"And to tell people there's safe sex if they use this kind of device and that kind of device to continue this kind of conduct, that's an illusion, because there is no such thing as safe sex."
"I would focus my attention on the blood supply," he said, to try to prevent the spread of AIDS through transfusions.
In a 1993 speech, Robertson expanded on this claim, urging President Clinton to drop federal funding for AIDS research:
And now a new plague is stalking our land, because the people have cast aside the sexual morals of The Holy Bible…
Instead of compelling the Armed Forces to accept homosexuals into their ranks, I would like to call on the President to take a stand against the ungodly lifestyle that destroys all it touches. Instead of seeking billions of dollars for AIDS research, let him demand that we treat AIDS as any other communicable disease -- not as a virus with civil rights.
As early as 1985, Robertson was painting AIDS as a threat to the “rights” of straight people, in rhetoric that echoes today’s Religious Right line that Christians are being persecuted by gay rights:
It is one of the most horrible things that is sweeping through our society. The blood supply is being polluted with this awful virus. And we're saying it's a civil rights matter. Those of us who do not engage in certain practices, such as intravenous drug use, etc., don't we have any rights? Don't we have any rights in America?
Of course you have compassion for those who are sick. One of our staff sent me a memo just yesterday which said, in San Francisco, the victims of AIDS in the hospital who happen to be homosexual are given visiting rights in the hospital for their "lovers" to come into the hospital. They don't even let the heterosexuals do that.
But Robertson did have a plan to cure AIDS, at least for some people. James Randi, in his 1987 book The Faith Healers, describes Robertson’s attempt to cure a man with AIDS through faith healing:
In 1986, soon after the full importance of the AIDS epidemic began to become evident, Robertson was attempting to cure it. Viewers of his program saw him pray over a man who had the dreaded disease. He invoked God’s power: We rebuke this virus and we command your immune system to function in the name of Jesus.
One of the most remarkable things about Robertson’s comments today is that even in 2013 he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, saying that he “used to think it was transmitted by saliva and other things, now they say it may be sexual contact” and fretting that someone who drives in a car with a person with AIDS may get into an accident in which they would exchange large amounts of blood.
Robertson’s weird fear of gay men in San Francisco sabotaging handshakes with sharp, infected jewelry comes right out of this mindset of ignorance and fearmongering, all too common in the early days of AIDS, which decades later Robertson doesn’t seem to have shaken.