On Friday, June 5, 1981, the US Center for Disease Control issued its weekly Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), which mentioned an outbreak of a rare form of pneumonia among several gay men in San Francisco. This was noted by the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times that day, and by the San Francisco Chronicle on the next. A month later, on July 4, the MMWR mentioned the emergence of a rare skin cancer among young gay men in New York City and Los Angeles.
These notices were the first public mention of what would come to be known as Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.At first it was called GRID, for Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Only a few years after the failure of the Briggs Initiative, the assassination of Harvey Milk and Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign, social conservatives were very quick to celebrate the emergence of a horrific disease among gay man, crowing about how God was smiting the sinners. Then the disease showed up among heterosexuals: hemophiliacs, and refugees from Haiti, and female sexual partners of people known to have GRID, and blood transfusion recipients with no known “risk” factors. The CDC officially labeled the condition Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in October, 1982.
At that time, a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. With no knowledge of what caused the disease, and no way to test for it, diagnosis could only be made by noting the effects of a destroyed immune system. You had six months to live, maybe a year, during which time you were ravaged by cancers and pneumonias, bacterial and viral infections, fungi and parasites. Some of the infections damaged the brain, leading to dementia. Other organs would be damaged too, with the lungs, sinuses and kidneys especially vulnerable. Unable to take care of themselves, death by malnutrition was not uncommon. Suffocation from congested lungs was not unusual either. And they were the lucky ones: the alternative was a slow, horrific death as your body painfully rotted away.
Worse than the physical issues were the social ones. A person with AIDS became a pariah, especially after 1984 when the causative agent, eventually named the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, was discovered. People were turned out of their homes by landlords, roommates, even their families, out of fear that they might be contageous. Friends would no longer visit. They lost their jobs. If they had medical insurance, the companies would drop them immediately.
Some organizations emerged to help people with AIDS. The Shanti Project, established in 1974 to provide care for people with cancer, expanded its mission to include AIDS. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, formerly a political street theater group in San Francisco, reorganized to make AIDS related charity work the central part of their mission. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in New York City in 1987 to agitate for political recognition of the epidemic and to fight for changes in laws to protect people with AIDS.
I came out in March of 1983 at the age of 15. I have seen, and received, the malice of bigots and hate mongers who assume every gay man is a disease-ridden monster who intends to destroy everything that is good and pure. I did a stint as a hospice volunteer, holding people’s hands as they lay dying then going home to cry as I remember how grateful they looked that someone – anyone – would touch them. Between 1985 and 1990, I attended more funeral than I can remember, all of them friends and mentors I would never see again. AIDS has profoundly affected my life.
Over the last 30 years, so much has changed. The development of antiretrovirals means that a diagnosis of HIV is no longer a death sentence… assuming, of course, that you have access to and the means to pay for the $2000 a month meds. The social stigma has declined, and insurance companies are no longer able to drop coverage just because you get an expensive illness. In many communities people with HIV are protected against housing and employment discrimination, and in many others, people understand that it is not something they are going to get from casual contact and just don’t care.
Over the last 30 years, so much has not changed. There are still a lot of ignorant people who assume that gay = AIDS, and much of today’s homophobic rhetoric is based on that lie. While discrimination has faded, it has not gone away completely: people still lose leases, jobs, family. Many jurisdictions in the US require HIV positive individuals to register with the government, sometimes they can do this anonymously, often times they must supply their names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information, just like a convicted felon on parole.
While it is easy to dwell on HIV and AIDS in the United States, it is important to remember that it goes far beyond our national boarders. AIDS remains a very major problem in southern and eastern Africa. In South Africa, the World Health Organization estimates that almost 18% of the population – about 5,600,000 people – are HIV positive. In Botswana, an estimated 24.3% of the population has HIV. All in all, there are around 22,500,000 people in sub Saharan Africa that are infected, 1 out of every 20 people, including 12,100,000 women and 2,300,000 children 14 years of age or younger. There are 14,800,000 orphans who have lost one or both of their parents to HIV.
There is hope, though. Research into HIV is still ongoing, and while there is little expectation to finding a cure, there is promising results for new treatments and even a vaccine.
I wish I could bring this to a more optimistic close, but I don’t see how I can. Things have gotten a lot better over the last 30 years, but there is still an awfully long way to go.