PRESCRIPTION FOR SUICIDE;
GAYS, AZT AND MIND CONTROL
By Ian Young
New York Native 12 Sept. 1988
During that 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 "injustice
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
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 suicide.
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.
George Whitmore 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."
Whitmore suggested 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 well.
Whitmore realized 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.
Whitmore saw 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
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.
Whitmore continued 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."
The Mineshaft 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.
"The Rebel," 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."
Few recognized 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 everything up."
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."
"We are 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 or behaviours."
George's articles 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
Twenty years 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."
Having cornered 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
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 testing procedures.
Project Inform 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.
"AZT is 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."
But Burroughs-Wellcome 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.
This widespread 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.
People, both 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].
Systematically 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."
Two decades 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
Having followed 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 society.
The terrible 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. *