The early 1980s was a scary period to live through for American homosexual men. Homophobia and discrimination not only effected day to day life but it went hand in hand with the threat of a highly infectious and fatal disease that had no known cure. The so called ‘AIDS crisis’ of the 1980s originated, paradoxically, from the medical progression of the 60s and 70s. The successful dissipation, and in some cases eradication, of infectious diseases in the 1970s infused the world with optimism. Funded by the World Health Organisation, a coalition of world health workers had successfully created a vaccination against smallpox, the world’s most fatal infectious disease. Therefore, the faith in the success of modern medicine had dramatically increased. However, social developments created the context for an epidemic which would rock the world.
A string of events brought the visibility of homosexuality into the public domain. The British government began to re-examine the law on male homosexuality and prostitution in 1954. In 1957, a committee headed by John Wolfenden reported that homosexual activity between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence. The recommendations put forward were eventually enacted in 1967, and in 1972 the first Gay Pride March took place in London. In America, homosexuality was also being brought into the spotlight and attitudes were beginning to change. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the inclusion of homosexuality as a disease in the DSM. However, the social progression surrounding homosexuality created a sociology of blame when AIDS erupted onto the scene in the 1980s.
Immunodeficiency disease AIDS originated in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1930s. Although it has been reported that it reached America as early as the 1960s, the first case was detected and recorded by doctors in 1981. During this period, being diagnosed with AIDS was to be given a death sentence, and it had begun to spread rapidly throughout gay communities. The media described AIDS as a ‘gay cancer’ or the ‘gay plague’ which gave impetus to intense anxieties towards the gay community. However, it was the work of American journalist Randy Shilts that directed the sociology of blame towards homosexual men and engendered discrimination towards them. His 1987 publication, And the Band Played On, pinpointed ‘Patient Zero’, a homosexual flight attendant, as the carrier and cause of the AIDS epidemic in America. Shilts’ work culminated in intense homophobia.
Fear and ignorance towards AIDS was widespread, mainly because the transmission and nature of the disease was, in the early stages, largely unknown. Right wing politicians and hate-inciting preachers attributed the AIDS epidemic to the work of God. It is no secret that Christians and other religions condemn homosexuality, regarding it as bad or evil. The rhetoric therefore of religious moralists and Christians deemed AIDS as a punishment for sexual sin, particularly the sin of sodomy or homosexuality. Christian churches used AIDS as proof that their teachings on homosexuality were correct and used the epidemic among homosexual men in the 1980s to extract theological richness from a disease they believed was saturated in deviance and sin.
Many politicians, including the Ronald Reagan White House refused to acknowledge the epidemic initially. The Reagan administration, in not responding to the epidemic, allowed hundreds of thousands of needless deaths to occur from the disease. The abhorrent neglect of the state was counter-acted by AIDS activist groups being set up in an attempt to gain funding for AIDS research, which was wholly disproportionate to the epidemiological significance. Discrimination against homosexuality was openly presented in the public domain through propaganda, such as the famous advert; ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’. However, publicity campaigns and celebrity announcements, including one from basketball star Magic Johnson, attempted to counter the incorrect perception of AIDS as solely a homosexual disease. Stars such as Freddie Mercury also worked tirelessly to arouse media attention to the fact that people of all sexual orientations were susceptible to the dangers of AIDS.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was like no other before it. It was intertwined with profound social and cultural meaning, it gave impetus to long-term and broad-ranging effects on both social institutions and cultural configurations. Furthermore, the social tragedy of the AIDS crisis has been intrinsically embedded in the social fabric of many communities. The stigmatization of sufferers and carriers is an epidemic in itself, which, to this day, has not been eradicated.
Written by Grace Young