The shocking announcement on July 26, 1985, came via press release.
Rock Hudson, age 59, tall, dark and undeniably handsome, was sick with AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, a disease that was, at the time, disproportionately killing gay men in the United States.
Just four months later, Hudson was dead.
AIDS had begun to be recognized as a public-health crisis during the early 1980s, but the general public had relatively little knowledge about it. Little knowledge, but plenty of suspicion and fear.
Despite a small, vocal community of activists calling for a government response to the crisis, AIDS was a deeply stigmatizing burden.
Most Americans believed the complex disease affected only gay men; it was some time before it became known that intravenous drug users, those who received blood transfusions containing the HIV virus and other groups also were at risk.
President Ronald Reagan would not speak publicly about AIDS and the need to combat the disease for years after he took office in 1981.
He defended his administration’s anti-AIDS research spending during a news conference in September 1985, about two weeks before Rock Hudson died.
The president also expressed skepticism about whether children infected with the AIDS virus should be allowed to remain in school.
That worsened the stigma for those who were afflicted, and it diluted the advice of U.S. government health officials who said “casual person-to-person contact, as would occur among schoolchildren, appears to pose no risk.”
By 1985, AIDS had killed an estimated 12,000 or more Americans, with a very high mortality rate among those infected.
That same year the U.S. government licensed a blood test to detect the AIDS virus and screening of the national blood supply began, but overall efforts to find drugs to treat, and perhaps cure, sufferers were still moving slowly.
Since his first days in Hollywood in his 20s, rumors about Hudson’s sexual preferences had been common. To suppress a former lover’s threats to expose him as homosexual, and thus very likely wreck his budding film career, Hudson married Phyllis Gates, his business agent’s secretary, in 1955.
Initially, even his wife did not know that her husband was living a lie.
The union lasted only three years. Gates was silent about their relationship for a quarter-century, but she wrote a book in 1987 that depicted her husband as bisexual, but also indicated that their marriage included sex.
After his marriage failed, Hudson went on to star in one of his best known films, an unforgettable pairing with actress Doris Day in the comic romance Pillow Talk. He was the main attraction in literally scores of films during the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, and also had a number of popular television roles.
Although his homosexuality was kept secret – Hudson once said that coming out as gay would have been “career suicide” – some of his close friends, including Doris Day, were fully aware of his private life. Another great friend of his in Hollywood was Elizabeth Taylor, a former co-star.
Worldwide scope of epidemic
After Hudson died in October 1985, Taylor became an AIDS activist and formed a foundation to raise funds for research on how to combat AIDS. By the late 1980s AIDS was beginning to be known as no longer simply a “gay scourge,” but a massive threat to public health worldwide.
Taylor gained fame as a humanitarian for her work on anti-AIDS research, which continued until her death in 2011. She has been credited with helping persuade the scientific establishment to focus more attention on the disease, and for informing the public that AIDS was not a moral stigma to hide due to a gay lifestyle.
Since the AIDS epidemic began, more than 70 million people around the world have been infected with the HIV virus, and more than 35 million have died, according to the World Health Organization.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the area most severely affected by AIDS, which still kills about 1 million people per year worldwide.
Thanks in large part to improved detection and more effective medications and treatment, the American share of the AIDS toll has declined sharply. Since the epidemic began, about 675,000 people in the United States have died of HIV/AIDS.
In less than a decade, the number of HIV infections in the United States has declined 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, more than one million Americans are living with HIV, and one in seven of them are unaware they have the virus.