Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

The Day Rock Hudson Got AIDS: A Turning Point in American Culture

Media, Sexuality, Social JusticeAndrew Smiler

I walked in the house one Sunday afternoon and my mother asked me if I thought Rock Hudson could really have AIDS. She was worried because there was a rumor going around and it was being reported by radio DJs and news commentators; in 1985, those people had well-earned cred for being trustworthy. My mom couldn’t really wrap her head around it. How could someone so handsome, so smart, so rich, have AIDS? It didn’t make sense. AIDS was a disease of publicly undesirable groups: gays, Haitian immigrants, and IV drug users. Not people like Rock Hudson.

A few days later, on Thursday July 25, 1985, Hudson’s publicist would confirm the AIDS diagnosis. Doing so was an act of incredible bravery. In 1985, nobody admitted to being gay or knowing anyone who was gay. At least, not in public. By admitting he had AIDS, Hudson risked his image.

How could someone so handsome, so smart, so rich, have AIDS? AIDS was a disease of publicly undesirable groups.

My mother had grown up with Rock Hudson as a “matinee idol,” in the lingo of the day. I imagine she’d had a crush on him way back when; she certainly seemed sad when she told me.

I wish I could say that I was sympathetic to my mother that day, but my 16 year old self wasn’t. I didn’t really care if some washed up movie star had AIDS and would soon die. Part of that was surely about being 16 and part of it was that I had no connection to Rock Hudson. At the time, I wasn’t empathic enough to deal with my mother’s pain about someone who wasn’t family. And part of it was simply 1985.

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This was year 5 of the Reagan administration and America was regaining its swagger. Not driving drunk was a new and big thing and the administration was pushing “21 for everyone.” The Moral Majority had real political clout.

For the first time, someone who was well-known, well-liked, and admired had the disease and deserved our sympathy.

There were no openly gay singers or actors, despite the perpetual National Enquirer stories offering poorly photoshopped images of David Bowie and Mick Jagger in bed with other guys and sometimes each other. (Also, we didn’t know the word photoshop.)

In “And the band played on”, journalist Randy Shilts documented the people and politics of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the US, 1980-1985. From its first identification in the US in 1980 until 1985, the disease had primarily effected gay men, Haitian refugees, and IV drug users. These were not people the news regularly discussed in positive terms; all were among the scourge of the earth according to many cultural critics. Hemophiliacs also suffered, although still in small numbers. For whatever reason, they weren’t a group the average person or the news media really sympathized with, so they remained caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

Three decades later, we know that anyone can contract HIV and develop AIDS; it’s not limited to so-called undesirables. Current CDC statistics indicate that men are more likely to have the disease than women, young men (13-24) who have sex with men are more likely to contract the disease than young men who have sex with only women,  and black men are more likely to contract the disease than white men. Using a condom that is theright size, and putting it on properly, are important tools in preventing the spread of HIV infection.

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The news that Hudson had AIDS changed everything. For the first time, someone who was well-known, well-liked, and admired had the disease and deserved our sympathy. The media could gloss over Hudson’s sexual orientation, and perhaps even implicitly praise him for staying firmly in the closet.

For the first time, former actor and now President Reagan would acknowledge the disease, but not officially. While the disease killed thousands, Reagan never publicly spoke about it. The administration never explicitly included funding for research regarding AIDS and had, in fact, directed senior officials at Health and Human Services to say they had all the money they needed; internal memos showed this was not the case. AIDS-specific funding had always come through supplemental appropriations bills introduced in the House.

Three weeks before his diagnosis became public, Hudson had joined the Reagans for a state dinner at the White House. Reagan would eventually mention AIDS, but only in connection with his friend’s death.

Hudson’s illness brought Hollywood publicly into AIDS. AIDS had already been in Hollywood, of course; Los Angeles had the third highest rate of HIV infection and AIDS deaths.

Hudson’s illness brought Hollywood publicly into AIDS. AIDS had already been in Hollywood, of course; Los Angeles had the third highest rate of HIV infection and AIDS deaths, following New York City (#1) and San Francisco (#2). After Hudson’s revelation, his dear friend Elizabeth Taylor donated her time, money, and fame, helping fund and found Americans for AIDS Research (AmfAR; nowThe Foundation for AIDS Research). The publicity around Hudson’s diagnosis helped diminish the stigma of AIDS and thus “allowed” A-list stars to participate in fund-raisers and other events without having to worry about questions regarding their own sexuality.

Hudson’s disclosure certainly opened up new lines of conversation between my mom and me, even if they were somewhat cryptic. For that, I owe both Mr. Hudson and my mother; thank you.

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July 25, 1985 is not the date Rock Hudson got AIDS, of course; it is only the date on which his diagnosis became public. With an incubation period of several years, there is no way to know exactly when the HIV virus entered his system. He died approximately 10 weeks later, on October 2.

On this 30th anniversary , let us recognize the major contribution of Hudson’s announcement: it changed the way Americans think about AIDS. Before, AIDS only effected those people. After, AIDS could effect anyone.

-image from Fanpop