The first cases of what would later be termed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981 when young men in three major United States cities were hospitalized with cases of extremely rare, deadly opportunistic infections. Within fifteen years, AIDS would become the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25-44.
Now it is known that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, is a blood-borne, sexually transmitted disease that cannot be acquired via casual contact. But in the early 1980s, all anyone knew was that this new illness was fatal. The ambiguity was a recipe for panic and blame.
Because the first reported cases of disease were among gay men, public opinion pigeonholed the burgeoning epidemic as a “gay plague.” The stigma of homosexuality remained strong in the 1980s, a decade which began with no federal or statewide anti-discrimination laws in place to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people. This prejudice seemed to be a primary cause of the relative inaction of the federal government to address the epidemic. From June 1981 to June 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spent $1 million on AIDS, which by October 1982, had stricken 634 Americans and killed 260. Across the same time frame, the CDC spent $9 million on Legionnaires' disease, which had caused fewer than 50 deaths. Even more troubling, because of the long incubation period, it was estimated that a quarter of a million Americans were infected by the time of the first deaths.
Some gay men reacted to the sudden appearance of AIDS in the community with de- nial. Scant public health warnings and virtually absent media attention gave rise to theories that the new disease didn’t actually exist or couldn’t be spread by sexual contact. The early inability of scientists to find the cause of the disease contributed to the confusion. Doctors and activists who spoke of a coming cataclysm were distrusted and dismissed for exaggerating the threat. Many gay men felt that authorities were trying to put them back in the closet and reverse the hard-won battles for acceptance and visibility.
This perception was heightened by homophobic rhetoric from religious and government leaders in the early years of the epidemic. Future White House Communications Director Pat Buchanan wrote: “The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.” Moral Majority leader Reverend Jerry Falwell said: “AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” The New York Times published conservative leader William F. Buckley’s call for people with AIDS to be tattooed for identification purposes.
Public opinion tended to blame those with AIDS for the disease. Hemophiliac children infected through blood transfusions were forced to leave school. A backlash of fear intensified after movie star Rock Hudson, one of the first public figures to confirm his diagnosis, died from complications of AIDS in 1985. Life magazine screamed on its cover, “Now no one is safe from AIDS.” Violence against gay men rose precipitously.
In 1986, right-wing political activist Lyndon LaRouche crafted California Proposition 64, which would give the state the power to quarantine those with HIV. The initiative collected near 700,000 signatures, twice the number needed to put the measure on the ballot. LGBTQ activists feared that if they lost, similar initiatives would spread across the United States. Through increasingly sophisticated political organizing, fundraising, and grassroots operations, LGBTQ activists were able to deliver an overwhelming defeat of the measure at the polls.
Scientists at the CDC and other institutions in the United States and France eventually determined that the retrovirus HIV caused a breakdown of the body’s immune system. A test for the virus became available in 1985. With confirmation that the disease could be spread by sex, the gay community—the hardest hit, but by no means the only population at risk—reorganized to meet the crisis. Groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Project Inform, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, formed to fill the void of effective public health policy by raising money for research and education, and to support those with the disease. However, the mounting death toll and sheer scale of the epidemic overwhelmed the meager resources of grassroots organizations. The federal government needed to become involved. Coming out in support of increased funding for AIDS research meant personal visibility and vulnerability in a society in which one could be legally fired or evicted for being LGBTQ. But a life-and-death desperation in the gay community drove increasing numbers to take the risk.
Isolated acts of protest in 1985 and 1986, and increasingly combative reports in gay pub- lications, indicated the mounting anger in the gay community. In early 1987, the Center for Disease Control convened a conference about the question of routine AIDS testing of certain populations. A protest group calling itself the Lavender Hill Mob stormed the proceedings and shouted down the speakers, pleading for the scientific community to “test drugs, not people.” The Mob dressed distinctively – they wore the pink triangle insignia forced upon gay men in Nazi concentration camps. Avram Finkelstein’s Silence=Death collective spread posters throughout New York City to foment expanded gay activism.
The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in 1987 and quickly became the face ofthe new activism. A primary target of the group was the availability of medications. Drugs identified as promising for AIDS treatment had not been fast-tracked for testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The sole drug available was a failed cancer drug that cost thousands of dollars a year, and clinical trial protocols denied patients potential alternatives. Using civil disobedience, direct-actiontactics, and media visibility, ACT UP put pressure on the FDA to expedite their work.
The federal government response was slow. By 1987, when President Reagan gave his first policy speech about AIDS, nearly forty thousand Americans had been diagnosed with the disease and over twenty thousand had died. That same year, Congress adopted an amendment banning funds for any AIDS education materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” This effectively outlawed any federally-funded education efforts which mentioned homosexual acts that could spread the virus. At the same time, other nations such as the United Kingdom, Uganda, and Thailand undertook massive educational programs that served as models of HIV prevention.
Reagan’s Commission on AIDS eventually released a report urging the protection of those with HIV against discrimination, an expansion of funding and services to fight AIDS, and money for preventive education. These recommendations were allowed to languish. Congress responded in 1988 by approving legislation that would define a comprehensive federal program to fight and treat AIDS. In 1990, the death of a teenager with hemophilia prompted the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act, which funded community-based care and treatment services. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was the first federal law to offer some protection against discrimination for those with HIV.
A NOVELIST AND ACADEMY AWARD-NOMINATED screen-writer, Larry Kramer saw early on that AIDS would devastate the gay male population. He cofounded one of the first organizations to confront the epidemic, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and five years later helped form the more combative collective, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Kramer realized that protesting against drug companies had to be made visually interesting in order to garner the media coverage ACT UP sought as leverage for policy change. ACT UP’s theatrical protests and arresting graphics provided the gay community a voice in determining how to treat a disease which overwhelmingly affected themselves. Kramer went on to write a prize-winning Broadway play about the early days of AIDS, The Normal Heart.
URVASHI VAID WAS HIRED OUT OF LAW SCHOOL by the American Civil Liberties Union, where as part of the National Prisons Project, she worked for the rights of prisoners who were HIV-positive. In 1986, she joined the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and served for three years as the public information director. In 1989, she became NGLTF’s executive director, the first person of color to head a mainstream national LGBTQ civil rights organization. She briefly retired to write the award winning Virtual Equality: The Mainstream-ing of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, before returning to the NGLTF as their public information director. As of 2013, Vaid served as the Deputy Director of the Governance and Civil Society Unit of the Peace and Social Justice Program of the Ford Foundation.
AFTER THREE YEARS AS A NUN, Virginia Apuzzo decided to pursue her political interests. She argued for a gay rights plank in the 1976 Democratic National Committee platform and joined the Women’s Caucus of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF). In 1982, she became Executive Director of NGTF and directed the organization to push for a federal response to AIDS. In 1985, she joined New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s administration, where she worked on the Consumer Protection Board to challenge pharmaceutical companies over pricing of AIDS drugs and to change discriminatory policies in the insurance industry. Once arrested outside the White House as a pro-
tester against the Reagan administration’s lack of response to AIDS, she became the highest-ranking openly LGBTQ person in the Clinton Administration where she secured fast-track disability benefits for those with the disease. “For a long time gays’ objective was to get government off our backs. With the advent of AIDS it became very clear that there were some problems the government had to be involved in.”
AN EMMY- AND PEABODY-AWARD-WINNING documentarian, Marlon Riggs, created films that confronted issues of racism and homophobia. His 1989 documentary, Tongues Untied, examined black gay male sexuality, particularly the differences between conceptions of macho and sissy within the black community. Other films include the 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions on racial stereotyping; Color Adjustment: Blacks in Prime Time (1991) about the stereotypical portrayal of black people on television; No Regrets (1993) about five HIV-positive black men addressing the stigma of HIV/AIDS and homosexuality in the black community; and Black Is...Black Ain’t (released posthumous- ly in 1995) regarding the diversity of black identities.