The Impact And Relation Of The Responses To The AIDs Crisis In America To Stigmas Surrounding The Disease And Its Victims

When AIDS first hit the United States in the early 1980s, it plagued marginalized communities that had since been ignored by the sociocultural and political world. The concentration of the illness within the LGBTQ+ community created tension and associated the illness to specific social groups. As awareness of this incurable disease spread throughout the country, the response by various walks of society was tainted by their prejudices towards the gay community and other affected groups. Due to their conservative political nature, the Reagan administration’s response was to cut funding for research while simultaneously neglecting to publicly speak about the epidemic. With a majority of his supporters being conservative, white and male, Reagan did not want to associate himself with the epidemic. Concurrently, a large majority of the medical community believed strongly in the relationship between homosexuality and the virus, fueling the theory that AIDS was a “gay plague”. As revered positions in society, people looked to politicians and medical professionals to tell them about the unknown, therefore their responses were crucial to how society would treat this illness going forward. This essay will examine how the responses to the AIDS epidemic by different sectors of society both impacted the community and were a product of the stigmas that continue to linger around AIDS and its victims.

Every year, 40,000 people living in America contract HIV and an estimated one million citizens are currently living with the disease. There are two strains of the HIV virus, but the one most prevalent in the western world is HIV-1, which is the main cause of AIDS, not only in America but worldwide. The three main ways people can contract this virus is through sexual intercourse, being in contact with an infected person's blood, or transferring the virus from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or breastfeeding. There is a common misconception that HIV and AIDS are the same illness, however this is untrue. Left untreated, HIV can develop into what is known as AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The virus attacks the immune system, mainly the white blood cells which protect the body from infection, making it vulnerable to a plethora of other illnesses, which can ultimately result in death.

One of the biggest dangers of AIDS was the misconception that it was capable of discrimination based on sexuality. In its infancy, it was coined as a “homosexual disorder” and eventually grew to affect intravenous drug users and predominantly poor communities. The disease was first seen in San Francisco and New York City, both major hubs for LGBTQ+ communities and liberalism. The AIDS outbreak hit during a pivotal moment in the gay rights movement. A number of riots, known as the “Stonewall Riots”, had kick-started the crusade in 1969 when police raided a gay bar in New York called Stonewall. Not many establishments welcomed LGBTQ+ people, so these raids were common in Greenwich village, the home of a number of known “gay bars”. The police’s attacks were repeated in establishments all across the country, and the community began to rise up and take action, both legally and in the streets. Encouraged, the gay bathhouse subculture came to light and many gay men embraced promiscuity as a form of rebellion against their oppression. All-male bath houses opened and became safe havens in the gay community where men would go to feel accepted and express their sexuality freely. However, this increase in sexual activity came with devastating consequences. The rise of unprotected sex led to a rapid spread of AIDS in the community. This unjust beginning was the origin of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the virus.

In the beginning, there was very little medical knowledge about the illness and many falsely based rumours circulated to the public. The New York Times ran the first article on the disease, headlining it “Rare Cancer seen in 41 Homosexuals – Outbreak Occurs Among Men in New York and California – 8 Died Inside 2 Years”, marking one of the first public recognitions of the virus as a danger in the gay community. During this time, doctors were still reporting that they were observing the mutation of a rare skin cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma, not having yet recognized it as a separate illness. However, as more deaths relating to immunodeficiency were observed, scientists realized they were up against an entirely new virus which, as far as they knew, was limited to homosexuals. The immediate response was to find how the disease was being transmitted and the answer presented itself as the sodomy. Many doctors believed and supported the allegations that HIV was a disease related to homosexuality, which both fueled the stigmas surrounding the LGBTQ+ community while also discrediting medicine at the same time. The first official name given to the virus in 1981 was GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency, officially associating the gay community with the illness without any medical evidence to support these allegations. It was later renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS in 1982. However, it was not until 1983 that the causative agent of AIDS was discovered to be blood and other bodily fluids, transmittable through heterosexual or homosexual sex. This concluded that women were also subject to the disease and scientifically disproved the rumours of a “gay plague”. The fixation by the medical community on homosexuality as a reputable reason for the spread of this virus both discredited the profession while simultaneously hindering ethical research into the disease. Their recognition of the tie between the virus and the gay community further empowered conservatives and religious groups to promote the idea that AIDS was divine punishment for homosexual behavior. With trusted professionals in the medical community giving life to the false allegations of a relationship between sexuality and AIDS, society felt they could believe these rumours. After all, if they couldn’t trust their doctors in an epidemic, who could they trust?

Certainly not politicians. As medical professionals began searching for a cure for what would become a nationwide epidemic, they found they lacked the money for their work. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) soon began reaching out to the government asking them to fund research and studies. However, the stigmatized damage around AIDS had already begun and the Reagan administration did not want their hands dirty with the rumours circulating around the “gay plague”. The conservative ideologies of the administration had a strong and clear effect on their lack of response to the public outcry for a cure. Reagan’s power amongst born-again Christian Republicans, who believed in demonizing gays and demolishing the gay rights movement, made him unsympathetic and hostile towards the affected communities. He believed assisting queer lives in any way would have meant risking the loss of a large majority of his supporters. Even when the threat of a massive epidemic was clear, the Reagan administration ignored intercessions from countless scientists and physicians to step in. Instead, they cut funding and mislead Congressional committees and the public by reporting that the researchers had all the materials they needed to conduct thorough investigations into the causes and effects of the illness. In fact, it wasn't until 1985, when AIDS had taken the lives of over 41,000 people that Reagan addressed AIDS publicly. This neglect of marginalized communities was a direct result of the homophobia that had infected American politics at the time. In a recent documentary short titled “When AIDS Was Funny” released by Vanity Fair, Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes of the Reagan Administration is being interviewed by Rev. Lester Kinsolving, a conservative journalist, who asked Speakes the first public questions about the AIDS epidemic. The questions are deflected with homophobic jokes and a sickening air of disinterest. Speakes explicitly says that the president had “not expressed concern” about the epidemic and continues to laugh about the suggestion that Kinsolving had contracted the virus. Kinsolving presses the matter in multiple press conferences, and each time was met with insults and laughter, despite his insistence on the urgency of the matter. This exchange reveals that the administration viewed the illness as a joke and that by 1984 they were still unbothered by the 4,200 deaths caused by AIDS. It was only when AIDS was found in the blood of surgical patients and the babies of infected mothers that Reagan finally spoke out about the epidemic that was ravaging the country. However, this was not until 1985 when AIDS had killed over 5,000 Americans. By not addressing this illness, Reagan allowed for society to blame the LGBTQ+ community for the crisis and simultaneously influenced how future generations would view the epidemic.

With a clueless medical community and the government turning a blind eye, the LGBTQ+ community was forced to become their own heroes. In the early days of the epidemic, before the knowledge of how the disease spread, the community was most concerned with providing support groups for those infected. In 1982, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was established in New York City as a way to both mentally and medically launch the investigation into the mystery of AIDS. They provided a hotline, a buddy system and domestic and nursing care for the bedridden, as many nurses began to refuse to treat AIDS patients for fear of contracting the virus. Additionally, as information surrounding the illness grew, the GMHC created a sexual health education programme to help inform people on how to practice safe sex and provided information on health and sexuality in general. However, when the gay community reached out to the federal government to help fund these education programmes, they were denied the money and left to fend for themselves. The government did not want to be associated with homosexuality and the medical community was unable to provide answers to the public’s questions. The homophobic bigotry of the general population pushed the gay community to be their own champions when defending themselves against the crisis.

However, with a cure nowhere in sight and a silent government, retaliation was inevitable. Eventually, protests against President Reagan’s reticence towards the AIDS crisis began breaking out and people started to organize and fight back. A group of New York activists founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. Their protests were known to be some of the biggest and most influential, and they soon became the face of AIDS advocacy in the United States. ACT UP was behind many city-wide protests and “die-ins” where large masses of people would occupy government buildings and dramatically pretend to die. These protests could go on for hours or even days, depending on their scale and publicity. The idea of these demonstrations was to highlight the human cost of the government’s negligence towards the crisis and give faces to the climbing death tolls being reported daily. Additionally, prior to the formulation of ACT UP, six gay activists plastered posters with a pink triangle on a black background which said “SILENCE=DEATH”. These posters were meant to equivocate the treatment of gays during the AIDS crisis to their treatment by Nazi’s during WWII, where homosexuals were forced to wear the pink triangle to mark themselves. These activists eventually joined “ACT UP” to continue their protests in an organized environment. With the LGBTQ+ community being primarily affected by the illness, they were tasked with fighting for their lives against bigotry and the stigmatization of AIDS.

Despite the stigma that AIDS was an infection that was confined to the gay male community, it soon began to affect other factions of society. The wives of closeted gay men along with intravenous drug users, their sexual partners and people living in poverty began to contract the illness. This scientifically disproved the rumours and suspicions that AIDS was related to homosexuality, however, it did not improve its negative connotations in society. Five years into the crisis there was a severe shortage of treatment programs for those who sought help for addiction and emotional support. Meanwhile, AIDS spread throughout poorer, drug-riddled communities and infected not only drug users, but their families and loved ones as well. However, Reagan continued to ignore the AIDS epidemic until the disease began killing blood transfusion patients. This was extremely controversial, as already ill patients would contract the virus through blood donors who were unaware of their positive HIV status. This was not a primary method of infection, however, these patients were viewed as victims rather than pariahs because their contraction occurred during blood treatments. The disillusion and blame of AIDS on the gay community allowed for countless lives to be taken, from all walks of life. The fact that the disease originally targeted communities considered to be on the fringe of society merely pushed the agenda that AIDS was an epidemic amongst the marginalized. The infection of blood transfusion patients was a major turning point in the government’s involvement in the crisis.

The AIDS crisis called upon multiple facets of society to take action in order to combat the illness. However, due to the affiliations between AIDS and homosexual behaviour, the reactions were almost all influenced by the stigmas surrounding both the victims and the virus. Medical professionals and politicians failed the American public by feeding into homophobia. This ultimately allowed for society to further demonize homosexuality with the false pretense that there was scientific evidence that linked sexuality and AIDS. Their homophobic and lethargic responses to the epidemic allowed AIDS to claim the lives of over 70,000 innocent Americans, regardless of sexual orientation. With no outside help, the activism observed by LGBTQ+ groups during this time was a direct retaliation against the fascism that AIDS unleashed in the United States. The early responses to the epidemic greatly determined how societies would address the illness in the future. While AIDS is no longer a death sentence in America as it was in its first few decades, its victims still struggle to combat the stigmas that continue to surround it. Had the initial responses to the crisis been quick and without prejudice, perhaps the outlook on this once devastating virus would be different.

10 October 2020
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