The US AIDS Crisis
Whenever AIDS is discussed, the fact that it’s referred to as a crisis is significant. 33.2 million individuals worldwide have died since the beginning of the epidemic in 1981. And for the most part, it was a human-made crisis. Politicians, world leaders, celebrities, public figures, they are the ones who failed us during the Crisis. Ignorance and the irrational fears of HIV/AIDS that these individuals had were significantly harmful, whereas understanding and conversations around serophobia and prevention could have been had and had a much more positive impact around stigma and would have reduced the spread. Unfortunately, most of them decided to spread homophobia and all forms of harm against those of us who are marginalized. Many gay men, lesbians, trans people, Haitian immigrants, IV drug users, sex workers, hemophiliacs, and “regular” people who happened to contract the disease were impacted with a disease that was considered a death sentence.
1981, Los Angeles. Doctors find that a patient who had seemingly no issues with his immune system had developed pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi's Sarcoma, which is only usually only found in those who have a weak(ened) immune system. Doctors were completely baffled at this, then in the summer of that same year doctors were finding a multitude of similar cases of diseases and infections that would only usually be possible with an immune deficiency across the country. They were finding out that these cases were appearing most commonly within gay male communities and cities with a dense gay population. (NYC, San Francisco, etc.) These mysterious cases that came to be known as GRID, or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. With the coining of the term GRID commonplace, hate crimes and horrendous acts of violence had spiked. Oftentimes the murders and violence committed against gay and trans folks would barely merit more than couple of paragraphs in big name papers such as the NY Times, even when hate crimes against the community were only increasing in frequency and numbers. For women, even long after GRID was a thing of the past, a lot of diagnoses for HIV would fly under the radar due to the fact that they would usually develop different symptoms when coming in contact with HIV (cervical cancer, vaginal thrush) which would complicate the lives of women during the 80’s when medical malpractice and false diagnoses was already commonplace for women (of color) during the time and even so now.
As time passed more individuals were seen to be also impacted: IV drug users - without access to needle exchanges and/or fair medical help - would contract HIV through shared needles. Sex workers with no access to contraceptives or any form of protection from acts of sexual violence from clients would get HIV. Hemophiliacs would receive blood and plasma transfusions from people who had AIDS, which was the reason gay men were banned from donating blood. Even when new medicines that could be tested were showing up in the mid-80’s that seemed to give individuals with HIV/AIDS hope, they were all hidden behind ginormous pay walls thanks to the privatization of medicine. But even then, most of them didn’t end up being very successful due to limited funding and research, as well as patients. Attention seemed to be garnered as more communities in the US were becoming impacted by the crisis, but that wasn’t enough for many politicians and community leaders to speak about preventative action and destigmatization. Even with many medical professionals and spokespeople coming out to say that those were the methods that would be the most useful to at least reduce the spread of the a virus that at the time had no cure, conversations were being shut down and activists punished and incarcerated. This was a matter of life and death and everyone involved knew but we were still all left to die. By 1987, 40,000 Americans would die from AIDS. and by the end of 1993 there were over 110,000 documented deaths.
When Reagan and his administration were elected, their promise for smaller governments would include budget cuts across the board, and for an organization as significant for the battle against AIDS, the CDC were looking at budget cuts that would equate to 25% of their budget. Margaret Heckler, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, would give speeches and would go on to say multiple times that the CDC was seeing all the funding that was considered necessary. In Heckler’s words, the only thing left was for the scientists themselves to further study it with their allegedly boastful funding and support. As we can see in the documentary The Age of AIDS, most researchers would have to steal equipment and often share extremely tight quarters. In 1982, Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, would joke about the issue along with members of the press that were present in the room. The dangerous and, at the time, fatal disease with no known cure was made out to be a simple joke that wasn’t even worth discussing formally. For them, it was a matter for the gay community to handle. Reagan would not even publicly recognize HIV/AIDS until his speech in May of 1987, but even then shared some horribly anti-immigrant rhetoric.
We as LGBTQ+ individuals are still around, and though the epidemic has taken so much of our history and loved ones from us, we have and will continue to fight. There are no shortages of organizations and activists fighting for HIV/AIDS advocacy, and though sometimes it may be hard to believe, strides have been made with medicine and treatments. I end this piece with a call to arms. Look into our activist history, find out what the battle against HIV/AIDS stigma looks like in your communities, and continue to amplify the voices of those living with the virus. As we say goodbye to World AIDS Day 2018, remember that there is a lot of work left to do and a lot more love and support to give each other.