October is AIDS awareness month. We all know what AIDS (or HIV) is more or less: a sexually transmitted disease that attacks the victim´s immune system, giving him months to live if left untreated. But few know the hopeless chaos that descended on the queer community when it was new, frightening, and incurable.
The first ever official report on AIDs was published on June 5th, 1981. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that described cases of a rare lung infection in five young, previously healthy gay men. Their immune systems weren’t functioning. At year´s end, there were 270 reported cases and 121 deaths, marking the beginning of the AIDs crisis.
“Back in the day, it was very worrying, I had many friends dropping like flies,” ¨Michael¨, a retired east Londoner, recalls to The Independent. “My partner and I lost friends, and no one knew why so many people were dying.”
The virus before treatment worked fast. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to die unexpectedly, despite being healthy and young. Michael’s partner, Brian, for example, noticed that he was losing an unusual amount weight. A friend commented that it was probably nothing, but he should be checked anyways. ¨You never know,” the friend urged.
He died 5 months later, and as the 80s pushed on, so would twenty of his friends.
Misinformation and pop theories fed on the confusion and fear, and it didn’t help that the virus was especially a problem among gay men. Homophobia usually replaced research.
Rev. Jerry Falwell told his followers that “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Religious groups in general campaigned that the virus was the hand of God, a sort of godly genocide on gay men. To them, AIDs was a blessing, an extermination that didn’t require them to lift a finger. People weren’t dying—gays were. It was called “gay cancer,” and many avoided treatment in fear of being stigmatized. In 1983, a New York doctor was threatened with eviction for treating AIDs patients. There was no research into a cure. People kept dying.
“The local gay paper published obituaries each week, and I’d check them carefully,” Peter, who lived in San Francisco during the AIDs crisis, told the website Cracked. “Clearly that’s a case of either no news or bad news, but I figured it was better to learn someone had passed from reading a news page than to get the news in a more sudden, unpleasant way — like phoning him after a period of non-contact and hearing his roommate tell you he’s dead and start to cry (which happened to a friend of mine). I even did my obit scans during the workday, grabbing the paper in a local bar where I’d stop after lunch.” Funerals became so normal that he “merged them into my schedule like haircut appointments.” Only once was he forced to miss a funeral—he already had a second one scheduled the same day.
By 1985, 16,000 people had died of AIDs. This would also mark the first year the Reagan administration acknowledged its existence. AIDs was beginning to spread worldwide, to over 50 countries, so now it was time to sound the alarm. But from 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan would go down in history for his lack of urgency about the deadly disease. Government response, which began to be slightly louder during the last quarter of the decade, ignored that AIDs primarily affected queer communities. Money set aside for the AIDs defense budget was spent on college students, heterosexual women and others- people who faced a relatively low risk. In 1987, Congress adopted the Helms Amendment, which banned the use of federal funds for AIDs education materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.”
“The palpable threat of possibly never reaching middle age, let alone retirement, caused a lot of us to shut out that whole vision.” Peter recalls, “After my own diagnosis, I assumed I’d never even make it to Y2K, so while I didn’t max out my cards like some guys, I saw no point in accumulating savings.”
Fury over the lack of government response gave the queer community something to rally around. Groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) sprouted to raise awareness and assist victims in any way they could. The LGBT community would become more visible as they demanded an answer for their dying friends.
“We didn’t have a gay center then or much in the way of gay organizations. We had to make them up as we went along, and people came together to take care of their friends who were sick and dying,” AIDs activist Dr. Jesse Peel told CNN, “As the epidemic unfolded, it began to bring people together.”
It seemed as though it would never end, and that frustration and grief played on the streets. Slogans like “Where is your rage?”, “One AIDs death every 8 minutes” and the famous “Silence = Death” were plastered on signs, clothing, and walls, anywhere someone could see them. This would continue the trend of queer people being visible, being out, and being angry, further showing that the LGBT community was not a mystery or a secret. They were people, and they were dying.
¨Because of the incredible courage of activists and advocates, many people with HIV survived decades longer than expected. Their activism literally saved lives and changed the trajectory of the epidemic.¨ said Diane Anderson, a writer for the Advocate. ¨For LGBT activists, it was a reminder that we could not be silenced, we would not shrink away, or allow anyone to pray away the gay. Queers were here to stay.¨