It’s founders would undoubtedly have planned to reflect the community’s diverse activities and interests in its columns. But it was its coverage of the AIDS crisis that made it memorable and, many have argued, ultimately led to its demise.
The first issues were barely off the press when the AIDS crisis hit, so it found itself with the ambiguous honour of being the first publication to print an article about AIDS.
Admittedly, it was about the Centers for Diseases Control’s (CDC) denial on May 18th 1981, that a ‘gay cancer’ was developing:
“Last week there were rumors that an exotic new disease had hit the gay community in New York. Here are the facts. From the New York City Department of Health, Dr Steve Phillips explained that , for the most part, the rumors are unfounded. Each year approximately 12 to 24 cases of infection with a protozoa -like organism, Pneumocystis Carinii, are reported in New York City Area. The organism is not exotic; in fact, it’s ubiquitous. But most of of us have a natural or easily acquired immunity.”
If only! Less than four weeks later, on June 5th 1981, the CDC published their first ever report on the immune suppressing condition that was to become known as AIDS.
As those of us who were around at that time know, it was a time of great fear; nobody knew what caused it let alone how to start treating it. And, in part borne out of that fear, a number of strange theories developed. Most of these were developed by our enemies – ‘the wrath of God’ and all of that rubbish.
But, in November 1982, the Native published an article by Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen We Know Who We Are: Two Gay Men Declare War on Promiscuity. In it, the two men argued that AIDS was not caused by a single causative agent but was down to the combination of factors associated with gay men’s ‘promiscuous’ lifestyles – drug use, multiple sexual partners and repeated exposure to other sexually-transmissible infections. It was widely criticised – not least because it had no scientific basis and also because it assumed that all gay men with AIDS had lived so-called ‘promiscuous’ lifestyles.
But other controversial articles did seem better informed. For example, on June 1st, 1987, it published an article on AZT, which had been approved for use on people with AIDS on March 20th. The author, John Lauritsen, had acquired documents relating to the clinical tests that had led to its approval and was in no doubt that the results had been doctored. He listed a range of concerns, including the fact that the drug’s toxicity had been seriously under-stated. Consequently, he warned:
“Recovery from AIDS will come from strengthening the body, not poisoning it. Do not take, prescribe or recommend AZT.”
In March 1983, the paper published a seminal article by AIDS activist Larry Kramer. 1,112 and Counting was Kramer’s furious attack on the apathy and neglect from politicians, clinicians and parts of the community in the face of the emerging AIDS crisis. Kramer was subsequently criticised for appearing to blame just about everybody but, given the situation at that time, it’s hard not to sympathise with his fury and his plea for a more effective response.
Sadly, there seems to be a general consensus (including the view of its founder, Charles Orteb) that the Native seriously lost the plot at some point and came across as paranoid and embittered. Central to the criticisms was the view that the Native eschewed the growing wealth of scientific data on causation and possible treatments in favour of the latest fad or conspiracy theory. The newspaper, it seemed, just wanted to find the negativity in everything.
Little surprise then that, by the mid-1980’s, ACT UP were boycotting the publication and its circulation went from a high of 20,000 in 1985 to 8,000 in 1996. It closed on 13th January 1997.