How the New York Times censored Aids in the arts

How the New York Times censored Aids in the arts


norman lebrecht

December 02, 2018

Tim Page has alerted us to a fine piece by one of his students, Leah Rosenzweig, on how the NY Times suppressed mention of Aids in the 1980s.

Leah writes: ‘These obits were laced with evasions effectively erasing a person’s life, effectively erasing AIDS.’

Have a good long read here.




  • Paul Brownsey says:

    ‘These obits were laced with evasions effectively erasing a person’s life, effectively erasing AIDS.’

    Maybe the writers thought they were being kind. Maybe they were reluctant to do what would have been in effect to out someone. Bad motives should not be assumed.

    • Sharon says:

      I agree. The cause of death, any cause, should not be published without the family’s consent. If I, as a nurse, published a death notice or obituary stating the cause of death without the family’s permission not only could I be fired but my license could potentially be suspended for this breach of confidentiality. A person’s health status, and that includes his/her sexuality should always be assumed to be confidential unless the individual, or the family when the individual is incapable or deceased states otherwise.

      I agree that “inquiring minds (may) want to know” but what is the point of embarrassing a family that is grieving? Nor is the mourning period a time for political education by telling a family that they should not be embarassed. The mourning period is not the time to make a political statement or make their loved one’s life a cautionary tale for others unless the mourners want to

    • steven holloway says:

      You make a good point. Also at that time, AIDS was deemed exclusively a homosexual disease. To give AIDS as the cause of death in obits of people known or assumed to be gay would have reinforced that misconception.

  • Bruce says:

    Couldn’t read the article because I wasn’t willing to give up my ad blocker, so I’ll make my comment without having actually read it:

    It wasn’t just the New York Times, and they didn’t do it only to artists.

    We learned to read the code pretty quickly. “After a long illness” usually meant AIDS, since the era of being hush-hush about cancer was pretty much behind us by that time. And if the person (almost always male) was survived by a “longtime companion,” — and often, sadly, his parents — that was the clincher. The more in-your-face death notices would print a request that donations be sent to some AIDS-related charity.

    What made Arthur Ashe such a hero (well, one of the things) was that he was able to “come out” as an AIDS patient and was able — and willing — to use his sterling reputation for integrity and dignity (not to mention his impeccable heterosexual bona fides) to chip away at the stigma surrounding the disease. “If even someone like me can get AIDS,” he seemed to say, “then don’t assume that everyone who gets it deserves it. In fact, nobody ‘deserves’ it.” Of course, he didn’t get through to everybody, but he got through to a lot of people.