AIDS is a terminal illness. Known officially as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, AIDS is the penultimate stage—other than death—in the HIV infection which is when the virus has replicated beyond the point where the immune system cannot capably function. What makes the syndrome deadly is the body's inability to fight off illness—making any minor infections life-threatening. For the predominant part of the 1980s through the 1990s, young Americans were terrified of AIDS. This fear permeated from the young homosexual community, that it was first discovered in, onto a global health issue. America was hysterical; confusion about the virus escalated AIDS from a health issue to a national crisis, all while the American public continued to remain ignorant. What arose out of this confusion and naiveté, much like the disease itself, was a capitalization off of the AIDS epidemic. Politicians and politically motivated groups used the fear which surrounded the virus to pass discriminatory legislation. Ineffective at curbing the health issue, the system cheated numerous victims out of proper health care. AIDS was no longer solely a health issue. AIDS was surrounded by fear. AIDS was a political tool.
The Elusive Nature of AIDS
Much of the of fear that surrounded AIDS was caused by its elusive nature. According to the CDC, in 1981 what became known as the AIDS virus was first detected in a group of five young homosexual men based in Los Angeles; of which, all five men suspiciously contracted the same rare form of pneumonia (one which only occurs within weakened immune systems). After the first detected case of AIDS, reports of this apparent immune system disease began to spread all across the US. What made AIDS initially terrifying towards Americans was its effect upon its victims. AIDS crippled young men, making them helplessly bounded to wheel chairs; a picture of Kenneth Meeks portrays the image that permeated in the public conscious during the epidemic. Such sepulchral images drove public fear, one community bared the brunt of the blame.
The Homosexual Community and AIDS
The group most affected by the AIDS epidemic was the homosexual community, with the majority of reports of HIV infection being among gay men. As the news media sensationally covered the virus, AIDS progressively became more widely known as the "gay disease"—a label that still endures today. Along with media coverage, earlier research continued to reinforce this idea that AIDS contaminated only gay men. A researcher from La Trobe University Melbourne, Doctor Jennifer Powers, contends that earlier research, which referred to AIDS as Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), produced "an image of gay men as diseased and dangerous". Because of early speculations, the disease was assumed to be a direct result of the homosexual lifestyle. Early research wasn’t entirely fruitless as it led to some promising leads. Being approved in 1987, AZT was the first drug approved by the FDA to combat AIDS; preventing HIV from replicating, prolonging life for those exposed to the AIDS virus. As a result of the early research, the homosexual became synonymous with AIDS, a negative view that would be tethered to the community throughout the crisis. While these negative views circulated, profound changes began to occur within the homosexual community.
Unity in Crisis
According to Eric Kaplan, Professor of Public Health at Yale University, gay men were immigrating to San Francisco—known as the homosexual capital of California—at "a rate near 5,000 per year in the early 1980s". Having such a high homosexual population with two out of every five men being openly gay, the San Francisco gay community was one of the hardest hit local communities by the epidemic, with approximately half of men testing HIV positive. Fear hit the community and stifled large amounts of activity. With the virus rampant, virtually all bathhouses and gay bars—venues which often facilitated risky anonymous sex—were closed or shut down. The dire state of the homosexual community was clear: gay men perished from a debilitating disease and nothing was being done to stop it. Something had to be done.
The Response and Activism
Rather than dividing the community, the AIDS epidemic unified homosexuals across the nation. To combat a common enemy, homosexuals stood unified in their discontent for how the epidemic was being handled. First was the ineffectiveness of AZT, a major disappointment in the fight against AIDS. Two years after the drug was released to the American public, additional studies revealed to the public that the drug was prematurely released without significant evidence that it worked. In fact, the drug had little to no effect in preventing the development of the AIDS virus, and, in fact, the drug caused severe side-effects. Second, out of fear and ignorance of contagion, numerous employers screened then fired employees who had contracted HIV. As knowledge of how the disease spread was not widely known, the discriminatory firing was a fruitless attempt by employers to curb the epidemic. What was universally viewed by the public was a critical lack of leadership, specifically by President Reagan. Critical of the president, political activists used the apathetic system as a necessary catalyst for action. Marches, rallies, and protests erupted all across the country in major cities. Specifically, on July 14th, 1992, United for AIDS—a composite group of AIDS activists—marched in Times Square, New York City. Protesting many of the before mentioned grievances, their platform was simple: increase funding for AIDS research, illegalize firing discrimination, sponsor public education of the illness, and lastly provide affordable medical care for AIDS patients. Such marches did garner an exceptional amount of media attention, in overall effectiveness, they were subsequently preceded by the NAMES Project. Founded in San Francisco, The NAMES Project Foundation focused on depicting and memorializing the sheer loss of life from the epidemic, rather than direct political action. The foundation collected numerous letters sent from friends and family members of deceased AIDS victims. In one of these letters taken from Andrew Carroll’s "Letters of a Nation", Chris B writes about his friend Land in hope that his letter and quilt "will be the goodbye [he] never had time to say." With the foundation accumulating a multitude of letters and quilts, the NAMES project held a massive demonstration in Washington DC in 1987. During the demonstration, thousands of rows and columns of quilts were laid down side by side, lining the lawn of the national mall. Marches and demonstrations such as the march in Times Square and the display in DC publicized the AIDS crisis. The homosexual community, along with other minorities and disenfranchised groups, were unified by this activism. Consolidated by their struggle, AIDS advocates by the end of the 1980s were prominent figures within the news cycle. Ultimately, this attention, which the group cultivated, would lead to the movement’s greatest antagonist.
The Religious Right and Politics
Towards the 1980s, a reemergence of Christian fundamentalism took place within America. Standing diametrically opposed to the homosexual community, Evangelists took to the national stage to expatiate against homosexuals. With AIDS as a means to preach against homosexuality, pastors such as Jerry Falwell asserted that AIDS was "God's punishment for homosexuals". Politicians, viewing this as an opportunity, shifted the conversation about AIDS from a health issue to a moral issue. This shift in perspective influenced the public, and as a result, legislative action was taken against the homosexual community. In Colorado for instance, an amendment was passed in 1992 which prohibited passing laws to protect the rights of homosexuals. Such legislation, endorsed by the religious right, encapsulated the public attitude towards AIDS. No longer was AIDS simply a health issue; it was a political, social, and ethical debate that divided America.
With the religious right taking a hold of the public discourse, soon fundamentalists found themselves with enough political capital to make changes. Clifford Rosky, professor of law at University of Utah, asserts that “although religious conservatives did not prevent the adoption of HIV- and sex-education laws, they had a profound impact on how these laws were drafted.” By 1988, seven states had adopted anti-homosexual education laws. These laws were blatantly homophobic, establishing that the homosexual lifestyle was unacceptable and caused HIV. The policies that amounted from the crisis were the result of the religious right taking advantage of ignorance and hysteria to push an agenda, rather than raising concern for those who desperately needed it. These policies and hysteria would even make martyrs out of the most unlikely of candidates.
Despite being hemophilic, Ryan White was a typical thirteen-year-old. One day in 1984 after a suspected blood transfusion was contaminated with HIV, Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS. After being bedridden for several months, Ryan was eventually well enough to attend school. Upon his expected arrival, numerous petitions were signed by concerned parents to bar Ryan from attending school. As a result of his discrimination, Ryan found himself as a figure head for the AIDS rights movement. National media then swarmed around the subsequent lawsuit over Ryan’s exclusion from school. After winning the lawsuit, Ryan was memorialized as the face of the AIDS epidemic. The case of Ryan White portrayed to the public the incessant ignorance and fearmongering that surrounded the crisis. Even after his death in 1990, Ryan continued, post-mortem, to serve as a figure head for the epidemic, having a bill named after him which improved availability to care for victims of AIDS—called the ‘Ryan White CARE Act’.
Conclusion: A Legacy of Activism
Broadly speaking, what caused Ryan White to be barred from attending school was both fear and ignorance. What caused Christian fundamentalists to preach hatred towards homosexuals was both fear and ignorance. So, it follows, what caused so many people to die of a debilitating disease was both fear and ignorance. Throughout the entire epidemic, fear drove the public to hysteria, this combined with the lack of knowledge led to the unnecessary suffering of those who had AIDS and those who loved someone with AIDS. AIDS wasn’t the first epidemic to ravage the US; for example, the polio virus led to thousands of deaths across the country. As such, AIDS will probably not be the last epidemic Americans see within their life time. What separated AIDS from other diseases is that it became known on a national scale. Being tied to stigmatized groups, AIDS, in some ways, allowed for homosexuals be on the forefront of national news. Why AIDS matters today is for two reasons: one, it still exists today and two, it led to precursors to the LGBTQ movement. Today more than 1.1 million Americans have HIV. While diagnosis of HIV has severely dropped since the 1980s and 1990s, the virus is still present today. Along with that, never before were homosexuals so widely covered within the news cycle. The massive media coverage in the 1980s and 1990s of the homosexual community served as the perfect catalyst for other homosexual rights policies, such as the legalization of gay marriage. Within all its tragedy, the AIDS epidemic did exhibit how society breaks down over the stress of an unknown enemy. May this terrible tragedy be a lesson for future generations.