AIDS in America: One Nation’s Homophobic History
The 1980s in the United States of America was a decade filled with extravagant fashion, electronic synthesizer-based music, and the tail ends of the Cold War. Lurking beneath the surface was an epidemic that would change the course of the LGBTQ community in and out of America. By the end of the ‘80s, thousands of people had died from a variety of diseases that were originally all combined under the umbrella term of ‘gay cancer’ or gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). While not only American homosexual men were afflicted, the other groups of people who would later be diagnosed with AIDS were not as great in numbers as the LGBTQ victims from the beginning of the epidemic. So how could such a tragedy occur within the borders of the world’s leading superpower?
Homophobia was allowed to run rampant throughout the government and resulting policies prior to and during the AIDS epidemic in America. So when it came to who was originally afflicted, the United States turned a blind eye to the issue because of that prejudice, which in hand, impacted all facets of life for the afflicted. Due to underfunded research and lack of concern for all citizens’ well-beings, the United States government was complicit in a passive genocide throughout the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s.
In order to understand this argument and the situations being discussed, one must have a basic understanding of homophobia, HIV, and AIDS. In context, homophobia can be defined in one of two ways according to Beverly Wright and Randall B. Yates in their journal article, “AIDS and Homophobia: A Perspective for AIDS Educators,”: “… as the irrational fear and hatred of those who love and sexually desire those of the same sex, or, as the fear of being perceived as gay, lesbian, or bisexual,” (Wright & Yates, 1989). This explanation of homophobia covers the conventional definition of ‘irrational fear and hatred’ while also raising the position of people who would be opposed to being mistaken as LGBTQ. While not the typical definition of a “o-phobia,” by including perceptions alongside run-of-the-mill hatred, this definition is capable of digging into the roots as to why people can be homophobic. However, there are many reasons as to why people can be homophobic beyond just an irrational fear of gay people and possibly being mistaken as gay. There are also different types of homophobic actions: direct aggression and physical violence, acts of discrimination (e.g., refusing a gay person service, not hiring a gay person solely because they are gay, etc.), verbal abuse (i.e., bullying, etc.), and not standing in solidarity. No one is saying that everybody must ‘agree’ with gay ‘lifestyle choices’ or ‘love’ all gay people but there is a fine line between not agreeing with homosexuality and then allowing for those people to suffer all kinds of abuse without staging an intervention.
Silence is a deadly weapon when it concerns minority groups and issues faced by them. This type of homophobia is mainly how the Reagan administration operated concerning policy during the AIDS epidemic. Then there are the two acronyms that defined a decade in medical history. A charity based in the United Kingdom dedicated to the dissemination of reliable information regarding HIV, known as Avert, demonstrated that HIV, also known as human immunodeficiency virus, is a, “… virus that attacks… a type of white blood cell in the immune system called a T-helper cell, and makes copies of itself inside these cells,” (Avert, 2019). The continued copying of the virus inside of the T-helper cells is what leads to a weakened immune system over time. This can be exacerbated to the point of becoming a syndrome if treatment is not received. That syndrome is what is known as AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. This means that AIDS is, “… a set of symptoms (or syndrome as opposed to a virus) caused by HIV… the last stage of HIV, when the infection is very advanced, and if left untreated will lead to death,” (Avert, 2019). Therefore AIDS itself is not the cause of death, but instead the compromised immune system that causes the victim to be more susceptible to diseases that are now more difficult to combat. However there are effective antiretroviral treatments one can take once diagnosed with HIV in order to prevent AIDS.
So how is HIV even contracted in the first place? Since it is a virus, HIV must attach to host cells in the immune system in order to replicate and take over. HIV can be found in semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids, and breastmilk, but not sweat, saliva, or urine (Avert, 2019). This occurs because the latter bodily fluids inhibit or make the HIV virus inactive. Therefore the spread is limited to contact with only the aforementioned fluids (i.e., semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids, and breastmilk). However this was not even known until 1983 as HIV and AIDS found their way around the globe (Avert, 2018). Before this research was conducted, people believed that either it was a ‘gay-only’ disease or that it was contracted through casual contact. Even now, this false information can be heard in some anti-gay rhetoric. As recent as the end of February 2019, Vice President Mike Pence’s new chief of staff was exposed for writing a scathing column in his college newspaper about the AIDS crisis within Hayley Miller’s article for Huffpost.com, “Pence’s New Chief Of Staff Apologizes For Blaming AIDS Crisis On ‘Repugnant’ Gay Sex.” Within his 1992 essay, Marc Short disparaged the grassroots efforts of normal people taking to protests in order to incite change as, “… the propaganda campaign ignited by gay activists and carelessly perpetuated by journalists whose intent is to scare all heterosexuals into believing they are prime targets for contraction of the disease,” (Miller, 2019).
Short even went so far as to caution readers against, “glorifying ‘homosexuals’ repugnant practices of frequent anal intercourse,’” (Miller, 2019). The Avert charity already noted that as of 1983 however, the CDC had already, “… ruled out transmission by casual contact, food, water, air or surfaces,” (Avert, 2018). Also in 1983, there were the first reported cases of newborns with AIDS, which was recognized to have been transmitted by their mothers before, during, or shortly after birth (Avert, 2018). In essence, Marc Short’s comment, “We have all learned a lot about AIDS over the past 30 years and my heart goes out to all the victims of this terrible disease,” (Miller, 2019), is nothing beyond an attempt to seem apologetic and remorseful. He knew more about AIDS when he wrote that column than the nation did a decade prior. Marc Short knew how HIV (and possibly AIDS, if treatment was not received) was transmitted and yet he still allowed his bias to cloud his essay for the college newspaper. He chose to ignore the known facts provided by science so he could assert his homophobic opinions to his fellow students. This alone is despicable in nature, but to do such a thing just so he could vilify a minority group that has already experienced its fair share of persecution throughout history, is just sickening. Mr. Short also conveniently left out the fact that while gay sex was one factor in the spread of HIV and AIDS, intravenous syringe use also played a huge part. Drug addicts sharing needles and haemophiliacs receiving treatments with dirty needles are just as much a part of the explanation as to how straight people also began to contract HIV. However, HIV has not always existed in humans. So how did the transfer from wildlife to humans occur?
Prior to the 1920s, HIV was unheard of within humans. However, at some point during that decade, the virus made the jump from apes to humans in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1999, a team of researchers discovered a strain of SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) in a chimpanzee that was almost an exact match for the strand of HIV found in humans (Avert, 2018). A widely accepted theory is that the SIV strain that can be transferred to humans, was transferred during a hunting scenario (Avert, 2018). This theory includes the consumption of afflicted chimpanzees and the accidental blood transfer into open wounds during the course of the hunt. This transfer prior to the 1980s epidemic in the United States allowed HIV spread out from the DRC into several countries in Africa until it eventually reached Haiti in the 1960s. The spread continued from 1920 all the way to 1982 before concern became widespread, for lack of better terms. 1981 in New York and California signalled the beginning of something sinister. There were several cases of rare diseases (like Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia) reported among clusters of gay men (Avert, 2018).
Later that next year, the syndrome was observed to have spread to haemophiliacs and heroin users, while also earning itself the name of AIDS that September (Avert, 2018). At the end of 1981, of the 270 cases reported amongst gay men, more than 100 had already died from some sort of immune deficiency (Avert, 2018). That is nearly 45% of the incidents that were actually reported. Who is to say that number isn’t higher if there were people who were unable to come out to their families as anything beyond heterosexual or if their families erased that part of their identity? From the overview of how HIV and AIDS are connected and actually work as a virus and syndrome respectively, one knows that those men did not just randomly die of a ‘gay disease.’ With today’s knowledge, it is acknowledged that those men were infected with HIV prior to their tragic deaths. Without the crucial information behind linking HIV as a virus and AIDS as a syndrome, the fear within the LGBTQ at the time is understandable. No one knew anything at all about what could have caused these initial deaths of what would soon become a noticed epidemic. Not to mention with how tight-knit queer communities were across the nation (but especially in the larger cities), the horror that the rest of those communities must have felt at seeing their brethren die, supposedly just because they were gay.
However, AIDS was not only found in America, nor only in gay men. Outside of the United States at the beginning of the ‘80s, four continents including South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia may have had already received an infection of HIV (Avert, 2018). This may be accounted for by the lack of visible symptoms that the infected exhibit. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s prior to the actual epidemic, there are figures ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 people who could have been infected before the crisis reached the attention of the general media (Avert, 2018). Yet even when the crisis did reach the attention of the media and people across the country, the response was uninspired outside of the communities who were actually experiencing the epidemic firsthand. Even when there were reports at the end of 1981, that there were 16 children under the age of 13 who had severe immune deficiency (HIV.gov). Nowadays, such a thing can cause a nation like the United States to rally together and help the issue receive attention. Instead, in 1981, the mass majority of the United States was silent. These children, who were not sexually active adults, were effectively ignored by the country for having what was only known as a ‘gay disease’ because of homophobia that was so ingrained in the fabric of society.
Yet the question remains as to how those children and other adults who were not gay obtained this disease that causes immune suppression. In 1983, the CDC released a report that found most cases of AIDS are found in sexually active gay men, intravenous drug addicts, haemophiliacs, and people from Haiti (HIV.gov). This will come to be known as the ‘4-H Club’ amongst citizens in the country and only serves to further stigmatize the people diagnosed with AIDS (Avert, 2018). This is not to say that officials at the Centers for Disease Control were targeting those groups of people. They were only communicating their findings to the public. It is not the CDC’s fault that people took this information and ran with it to support their discrimination. Nor is it the CDC’s fault that the sitting president had still yet to mention the epidemic in public at this point in time. Even with the limited information available, people afflicted with HIV and/or AIDS were extremely stigmatized and ostracized within the majority of society, and even today there is still high stigmatization surrounding the virus. Ryan White is one of those people. As a haemophiliac, he received a blood transfusion that carried the HIV virus. The virus was then transferred to him and he was eventually diagnosed with AIDS. In 1985, the 13 year old became the poster boy for the fight against AIDS. His middle school refused to have him back for the next school year after the diagnosis was revealed, and the legal case made news across the nation (HIV.gov). After Ryan made headlines around the end of August, President Reagan finally mentioned the word ‘AIDS’ to the public on September 17th (HIV.gov). Despite the attention the disease garnered due in part to Ryan White speaking out against the discrimination faced by people with AIDS, there are an increasing amount of people and children being diagnosed with HIV and subsequently AIDS as the years progress under President Ronald Reagan.
As the 1980s drew to a close, there were still plenty of people being diagnosed with HIV and dying from complications. The demographics had just shifted. George Kohn documents this change in his encyclopedia entry, “U.S. HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” He notes that, “… the number of new cases of HIV infection among homosexual and bisexual men; accounting for about 54 percent of all diagnoses recorded through 2005, though, the group still represents the largest single segment of people with AIDS,” while also in the same time frame, “The percentage of HIV cases among women, however, has been rising steadily, and beginning in the mid-1990s, the number of women exposed to the virus through heterosexual contact exceeded those who acquired it through illegal drug use,” (Kohn, 2007). These statistics indicate that straight sex was now spreading the virus at a similar rate to gay sex; while also acknowledging that even though the target group (i.e., gay and bisexual men) was receiving education that enabled them to make informed choices about their sexual habits, there was already an outrageous number of queer men with an AIDS diagnosis. HIV did not stop at that point though. It also continued to cross race boundaries at disportionate rates. Around the early 2000s, Elaine Hills reveals in her encyclopedia entry, “U.S. HIV/AIDS epidemic that, “…African Americans comprised 12 percent of the population but accounted for 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses, and African-American women were more than 12 times more likely to contract HIV than white women,” (Hills, 2008). While Reagan was gone from the Oval Office long before the early 2000s, his administration’s response to HIV and AIDS set the path on which more people would be exposed to the virus, thus contracting it and subsequently AIDS if no treatment was received.
This goes to show that while one could possibly brush off the deaths that occurred throughout the 1980s due to AIDS being a ‘new’ issue, it is impossible to separate the original lack of concern from the new cases that emerged even after Reagan left office. As many people know, Ronald Reagan was leading the nation in this time of crisis, yet many people could not have predicted what a mark his presidency would leave upon future generations of the LGBTQ community and beyond. Inaugurated January 20th of 1981, he served for eight years as President of the United States. Funnily enough, those two consecutive terms occurred during the brunt of the AIDS crisis. Some people believe it can be unfair to criticize past political leaders due to advancement in knowledge as time passes. Reagan’s case is different from typical cases of unknown consequences and general knowledge. Criticisms of him and his policies regarding HIV and AIDS come from a lack of action. According to “Ronald Reagan, Social Policies of” in The Reagan Years by Jeffrey L. Chidester and Stephen Knott, Reagan had witnessed the number of reported AIDS cases rise from nearly 200 in 1981 to 82,762 by the end of his second term (Chidester & Knott, 2005). That is an astronomical jump in numbers that included more than just the gay community. The death toll had reached over 46,000 people by 1989 (Chidester & Knott, 2005). And what had Reagan and his administration done to at least attempt to prevent those deaths throughout his eight years as leader of the country? In short, nothing that was ever effective or in a timely manner. Especially upon the details of the administration’s attitude and response towards to the crisis that previous decade.
There are many labels attributed to the Reagan administration but the description of their response to the AIDS epidemic in America can best be phrased as outrageously inadequate. Silence and inaction are the main tools the administration used to commit their transgressions against the LGBTQ community at the time. One might be asking at this rate what could possibly be categorized as a transgression. In the history of the AIDS epidemic, a transgression can count as staying silent when people need guidance, joking about those who are diagnosed and/or dying, and refusing to tell the public what they actually need to know in order to protect themselves. In HIV.gov’s comprehensive timeline from their federal-based website that works to provide factual and relevant information concerning HIV and AIDS to the general public, they note that Reagan did not even mention the word “AIDS” in public to address the nation until 1985 (HIV.gov, n.d.). That would be like if former president Barack Obama literally refused to acknowledge the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015 until four years later in 2018. Nowadays, even in the midst of the Ebola outbreak, that would just be preposterous and Obama would have received ridiculous amounts of criticism. So why was it not such a public relations mess in the 1980s? Homophobia strikes, once again. Time after time, both before and after Reagan finally mentioned AIDS to the citizens of the nation, he and his administration refused to give this issue the attention and respect it deserved. They refused to acknowledge the humbling power of an unknown disease killing hundreds and thousand of people each year nothing was said. The administration showed their cards in how they refused to put in any real effort into researching a disease that impacted more than just gay people until it was too late. Not to say that it was too late for the disease to be stopped, but had the Reagan administration confronted HIV and AIDS without hesitation, HIV would not be at the epidemic levels it is now.
There are many instances in which the Reagan administration neglected to address the AIDS epidemic that allowed for circumstances to worsen. At the end of September in 1982, two U.S. representatives attempt to pass legislation that would give research into AIDS more funding but it does not even make it pass a committee and onto the floor of Congress (HIV.gov, n.d.). It may be too easy, perhaps, to criticize the committee who did not reach a consensus that then could be voted upon in Congress concerning AIDS research. Therefore, while it is tempting to imagine how many people this action alone killed, one must remember that in 1982, nobody even knew how HIV and AIDS were spread in the first place beyond gay men. To digress however, one can only hope that any administration and legislative representatives would be able to see past any prejudices if it could potentially save hundreds of their fellow citizens. What was lacking in the administration’s response to HIV and AIDS is even more damning when the former president essentially insinuates in a 1990 interview that “… his administration’s response might have been ineffective,” (Chidester & Knott, 2005). That statement alone reads as disrespectful to all those who were permitted to die in the name of willful ignorance and all those who were left alive with their losses. While the phrase, ‘AIDS epidemic,’ draws to mind an era of confusion and feelings of helplessness, it is important to note one thing about how prejudices impact government policy. When a government is willing to solve an issue that impacts any number of its citizens, that problem is most likely to not spiral into a disaster. Unfortunately for the LGBTQ community and countless other people impacted by the AIDS crisis in America, this was not the case for them.