Forty years ago, on May 18th, 1981, writing for the gay newspaper New York Native, Laurence Mass addressed rumours of a new gay disease in an article titled “Disease Rumours Largely Unfounded”. Rumours had appeared in New York that a potentially dangerous form of pneumonia was emerging. This form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis jirovecii (or P. Carinii as it was called at the time), was not uncommon in the immunodeficient. However, in New York, several otherwise healthy homosexual men had acquired it leading to speculation that it was somehow ‘community acquired’. Mass was reassured by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that rumours of a ‘gay disease’ were unfounded. Of course, these men were in fact immunodeficient and although Mass could not have known it at the time, he was the first person to ever publicly document HIV.
Mass even beat the CDC to the ball and only 3 weeks later, on June 5th, they published on the disease in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). This time, in Los Angeles, 5 men had all been treated for P. Jirovecii with one dying. Just like in New York, they were all homosexual and otherwise healthy. For weeks, the CDC awaited responses and calls from the press asking for more details but apart from the Associated Press (which published the MMWR weekly) and two local newspapers, journalists were completely uninterested.
On July 4th, the CDC published another article detailing how the number of cases of otherwise healthy gay men with P. jirovecii had risen to 15 in California. Additionally, there were now 26 cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, another rare disease, across New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. For the CDC to publish two articles on a similar topic in such a short period was concerning and this did gain more attention from the press leading to the New York Times publishing an article entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” (July 3rd, 1981). However, this article was buried in the back of the newspaper. Despite the red flags which had emerged, the government did nothing to educate and inform the press.
By late 1982, AIDS was still receiving limited coverage from the press, but the CDC had learned more about the disease. HIV the virus had not yet been discovered, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the disease was not exclusive to homosexuals and that it was infecting the ‘4 Hs’- Haitians, homosexuals, heroin users, and haemophiliacs. Additionally, infections did not appear to be random but were associated with certain behaviours. Scientists theorised drug usage and sexual promiscuity. Medical professionals were starting to realise that AIDS had an incredibly high mortality rate but it still lacked coverage within the press, being relegated to the back of the newspapers if the issue was covered at all.
One might expect queer publications to cover the crisis more extensively and in some cases, this was true. Laurence Mass, the whistleblower for AIDS, continued to write about the developing situation and on July 27th, 1981, his article, “Cancer in the Gay Community” reached the front page of the Native. The primary reason for Mass and other journalists to take a particular interest in the crisis is clear. Journalists and readers were personally affected by AIDS because even if they were not sick or dying, many of their closest friends were. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Mass was a founding member of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), in 1982.
However, despite the work of Mass, some newspapers responded with the opposite approach reflecting a similar or even worse attitude to the mainstream press. The Village Voice, an alternative newspaper with a large gay reader base, rejected an article submitted by Mass in spring 1982 reporting on the crisis. Years later an editor admitted that they purposely avoided writing about the crisis for as long as possible for fears of offending their gay readers. As Mass acknowledged, “Sexual Freedom was essential to being gay”, and it was difficult for queer publications to come to terms with the transmission of HIV. Larry Kramer, another co-founder of GMHC, was considered a ‘spoilsport’ and even a ‘sexual fascist’ after his 1978 book, Faggots, criticised the lack of sexual safety in gay communities, resulting in him being ostracised from the community.
Readers may assume that the early years of press coverage regarding the HIV crisis were categorised by rampant homophobia. However, this perception is largely inaccurate. The CDC first termed the disease ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ (GRID) but by August 1982, this term had fallen out of use, with AIDS becoming the prefered term. By 1982, AIDS was still relatively unknown to the general population and only inconsistently covered by queer publications. Therefore, early coverage of HIV in the mainstream press can be considered lacking rather than insidious. Of course, this is not to pin inadequate publications concerning the disease down to homophobia. A key reason for deficient publications was a lack of interest in the mainstream press to cover a taboo community such as homosexual men, especially when the government gave no reason to. In Queer publications, often the press was similarly sparse but for different reasons relating to a lack of willingness to acknowledge the reasons for the transmission of the virus. Ultimately, word only spread through the work of HIV activists such as Mass and Kramer.