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AIDS at 30: The Epidemic of the ’80s as American History

Thirty years ago, on June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control published a report of five “homosexuals” who had been stricken with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles. Before the immune system failure that caused these fatal cases of pneumonia was eventually named AIDS, it was called GRID — for Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

Like most of my peers born at end of the 1980s, I have no personal recollection of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic or how it affected gay men in America during that time. In a college course on epidemiology, our professor reminded us that behavior and identity are not the same and so we used the phrase “men who have sex with men” rather “gay men” or “homosexuals” when talking about HIV transmission. My professor, a man old enough to be my grandfather, wasn’t making a point about political correctness. The language used in demarcating epidemiological categories can lead to better understanding of the spread of disease as well as more aptly targeted prevention messages.

However, to me this language is also a reminder of how my generation’s understanding of HIV and AIDS is so different from older generations’. It was not until I was a summer intern at an AIDS advocacy organization in San Francisco that I had any idea of gay men’s place in early AIDS epidemiology, public health measures, or activism. I quickly learned about the devastation of AIDS in gay communities and how important that history is to many of today’s activists.

AIDS of course did not only affect gay men. In the early years of the epidemic the mnemonic of “four H’s” (homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians, and heroin users) was a quick way of naming the groups disproportionately afflicted (though not all of those infected fell neatly into one of those categories). Nevertheless, mainstream understanding of AIDS often characterized it as a “gay disease.” Purported by some to be God’s punishments for the wages of sin, AIDS provided the fodder for certain public figures to virulently attack gay men, lesbians, and people with AIDS. Reverend Jerry Falwell once famously argued that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

But it wasn’t just lone commentators who infused discussions of AIDS with homophobia. Rather than outright condemn gay men with AIDS, others met the situation with near silence. President Reagan did not publicly say the word AIDS until 1986, the sixth year of the epidemic, and articles about AIDS were often buried in the middle pages of newspapers. In these instances, silence was often thinly veiled prejudice and callousness.

Gay men in large part led the activist movement that fiercely criticized government inaction on AIDS and drew public attention to not just the plight of gay men with AIDS, but other affected groups as well. Activist efforts ranged from the street protests of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) to the unveiling of the NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Washington Mall. Though starkly different forms of activism, both used a pink triangle, referencing the inverted pink triangle badge placed on homosexuals in Nazi Germany, as an appropriated symbol of gay liberation, solidarity, and resistance. ACT-UP most famously used this symbol in its banners proclaimingSILENCE=DEATH.

When I mention my curiosity about this history, almost anyone over the age of 40 can tell me some personal story about those early years. One of my professors lost his brother to the disease, and as a gay man himself, he lived in fear for his own health. Another professor told me how at college in the 1980s she and her classmates were instilled with a morbid fear of sex. And many people I’ve met through The Hastings Center have recounted their involvement in debates around issues like whether health care providers had an obligation to treat AIDS patients before the causal agent and mode of transmission were well understood.

My generation’s limited knowledge of AIDS came as a painful surprise to Michael Bronski, a gay man who lost his lover and several friends to AIDS. In 2003, Bronski taught a course called “Plagues and Politics: The Impact of AIDS on U.S. Society” at Dartmouth College. In an essay on his experience, published in The Boston Phoenix, he wrote, “I was shocked — profoundly shocked — by the fact that only three of the 34 students in the class had any idea that AIDS was once widely regarded as a gay-male disease.” His students, like me, had had no idea that AIDS had once been characterized as a “gay plague,” or that activists had to fight government inaction and homophobia for even limited research funds.

Bronski realized that when his students did learn about HIV, it was usually explained as “one more STD — granted, a deadly one, but not a real worry if you practiced protected sex.” For them, he remarked, “AIDS was, for the most part, a problem in Africa or the ‘inner city.’” His experience was a reminder that the lives of gay men and lesbians, as well as other minorities, are often cast as unimportant in historical narratives. “I fume when I think of students who have been denied the history of the queer community’s sheer bravery in the face of AIDS,” he wrote. “It is not just my own history they don’t know, it is the vital history of a momentous social movement that, in many ways, changed the face of political and medical policy in America.”

This past needs to be recognized as an important part of American history. The 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic is an occasion to reflect on how AIDS, especially in its early years, shaped the landscape of sexuality, medicine, and politics in the U.S. It’s a time to listen to the stories of those who were at the frontlines: the young infectious disease resident who could not cure but only comfort and give palliative care to her young patients dying of AIDS, the gay AIDS activist who was diagnosed with GRID in 1982 and lived for 11 more years, empowering others to delve into scientific information on their disease and to focus on life rather than death. And it’s also a time to recognize that while this history lives on in the memories of many, for those of us to young to remember, it will need to be passed on.

Colleen Farrell is a research assistant and The Hastings Center.

Published on: June 3, 2011
Published in: Public Health

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