The Hateful History of the AIDS Epidemic


Clay Arnold

The hateful stigma surrounding the AIDS epidemic is still present today.

Clay Arnold, Editor

1970s Brooklyn was far from what it is today. Amongst the crime, unemployment and abandoned buildings were people like Rick Wellikoff, a school teacher with a social personality in Greenwich Village. One day Rick noticed his lymph nodes were severely bothering him. After seeing doctors and being tested, Rick was diagnosed with Kaposi Sarcoma. This diagnosis made no sense, though, as it was common among older men with Mediterranean ancestry. Rick was neither Old nor Mediterranean. Nevertheless, Rick was not too worried about this slow-progressing disease. This would change when his symptoms developed rapidly and spread to the rest of his body. In a matter of months, Rick’s life took a nosedive. He had to quit his teaching job and became a shut-in. Regardless of any medical efforts, his state just got worse, indicating that this was not just Kaposi Sarcoma (KS). Eventually, on Christmas Eve of 1980, Rick died at just 37 years old. Following this, one of Rick’s friends became ill as well. This friend only survived a few weeks until his death on January 15th, 1981. This pattern of young, seemingly healthy men dying from mysterious illnesses continued. This is how the pieces started falling into place for what the world would know as the AIDS epidemic.
What must be originally pointed out is the fact that there has not been a single point on the globe where AIDS has not had an impact. Thanks to blood samples we know that the virus dates back to the 1930s but the first official case is known to have been in 1959. Between then and 1979 there were numerous HIV-related deaths that went unknown because no one really knew what HIV was.
Doctors have determined that the first person to die from AIDS was a man named Ken Horn. sadly his story is lesser known possibly due to his job as a sex worker and the stigma surrounding that. While Rick Wellikoff and his friends were fighting for their lives in New York, three thousand miles away in southern California, five men contracted Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP) and died shortly after. Doctors soon drew a link between PCP and KS and by 1980 26 confirmed deaths were tied to this link.
These infections were now classed as opportunistic infections which occur more often in people with weakened immune systems. This is what many refer to as Aids related infections. People do not simply die from AIDS. it’s more the diseases they contract due to weakened immune systems that kill them. What makes this worse is the fact that at the time, the CDC did not comprehend what was taking place either. This led to an increase in fear among the gay community. One activist from the time said, “The obituaries were like the gay men’s sports page”. This shows how every updated record of deaths featured a slew of new AIDS victims.
Even with reports stating how AIDS is actually transmitted, the stigma surrounding gay men persisted. Eventually, in 1983, the CDC published the first report of AIDS in a woman. This only made women seem like outliers rather than equally as likely cases. It seemed as more information came out, people still followed false ideas, slowly forming a political narrative that gay men are the problem. In 1884, a pair of French doctors presented their findings that a retrovirus, later known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). If left untreated, HIV progresses into AIDS.
This breakthrough led to hope that a cure could be found. With efforts growing to further identify contributing factors to the spread. Needle sharing was pointed out as a key contributor and casual contact, air, water, and food were ruled out as routes of transmission.
A survey by the Gay Lesbian Task Force found that in 1985, one in five gay men had faced physical assault for being gay. This shows that the stigma surrounding AIDS made queer people an even bigger target. This was made even worse by the occupant of the white house at the time, Ronald Reagan. In his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter and won by a landslide. He did so by accusing Carter of “Catering to the gays”. He also used fear stemming from a gay man being elected to office in San Francisco. The logic he used was basically that if a gay man can be elected there, what’s stopping one from being elected president? He also has been quoted saying he hated the gay lifestyle, so it makes sense to assume he possessed homophobic tendencies. The head of the CDC at the time was appointed by Reagan as well. This means he was likely inclined to protect Reagan’s own interest, rather than public health. An insider reported that the CDC was capable of forming a prevention plan for the spread of AIDS but instead focused on mocking victims.
Moving to Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes was quoted saying the disease is the “Gay Plague” in a humorous tone. Over two years, Speakers would be questioned about AIDS and would repeatedly downplay the dangers present. Additionally, Pat Buchanan called AIDS “Nature’s revenge on gay men. The poor homosexuals… have declared war upon nature and now nature is exacting an awful retribution. It wasn’t until 1985, that Reagan finally addressed the epidemic as the federal government’s number one priority. He did nothing to fund these claims and told the CDC to simply do as little as possible to fix the problem. While Reagan’s administration didn’t exactly create the epidemic, they certainly are to blame for amplifying the problem. Simply put, the disease was killing a group that Reagan already disliked, and he did nothing to fix it. How convenient…
Moving outside of Reagan’s administration and into his family tree, Nancy Reagan is also culpable for making things worse. She accidentally took a sip of water from a gay friend’s cup and went into an all-out panic. Not only was this a depiction of the homophobia America’s mom possessed but also of the pathetic amount of effort the government was putting into diminishing the virus and misconceptions around it.
Many advertisements circulated in attempts to promote safe sex, unintentionally promoting stereotypes that the gay community consists of nothing but loose moraled, unsafe sexual deviants. This obviously is not an accurate depiction of the gay community.
With the epidemic sweeping the globe and taking literally everyone by storm. Thousands of people, mainly young gay men, and the government are still cracking jokes in interviews without a care in the world. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a group that formed in the early eighties, set up the world’s first AIDS hotline. They also passed out thousands of copies of their newsletter, which detailed different methods of treatment for AIDS. The first major AIDS fundraiser was brought to fruition by this group as well. They did everything they could to educate people on real safe sex tactics because “Just say no” works about as well with sex as it does with drugs.
Even with all of this action taking place, one would expect Ronald Reagan to take notice. He actually did not take notice until one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols, Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS. Not only was he famous for his acting roles, but he was also very close with Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t until July 25th, 1985 that he announced to the public that Rock was a gay man. This then prompted the Reagan administration to announce that the AIDS epidemic was their top priority. Rock died on October 2nd that same year, leading his estate to leave 250,000 dollars to co-found the American Foundation for AIDS Research with Elizabeth Taylor. She continued working with this organization until her death in 2011. Congress also provided 190 million dollars in funding for AIDS research as well.
Since the start of the epidemic, countless names have been attached to the disease as more lives are taken. Magic Johnson, Freddy Mercury, Greg Louganis, Alexis Arquette, Trinity Bonnet, and many more celebrities openly spoke about their experiences with AIDS, in attempts to destigmatize the disease. The biggest problem with AIDS today is the same as decades ago. The government has continued to show apathy toward the communities impacted until it impacts those in power. The first traces of spreading were found in 1981 but protections and treatments didn’t go mainstream until 1990. That’s the entirety of Reagan’s administration and the beginning of George HW Bush’s. Since the start of the epidemic, 110 million people have been infected and 36 million have died. One may think AIDS is a thing of the past but as of 2020, there are still 37.7 million people on the planet living with HIV and AIDS. AIDS is considered the only terminal illness that comes with shame, due to the homophobic and hateful stigma surrounding its history.