Aids Crisis In America: History And Reasons

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In one decade over 25,000 lives were lost to a disease thought to affect only gay men: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The American AIDS crisis of the 1980s led to an increase in stigmatization and discrimination against the entirety of the LGBT community but encouraged that community to unite and fight for acceptance and understanding. The AIDS crisis also forced the LGBT community into mainstream society, more than it had been in the previous decade, meaning “gay issues” could not be kept out of sight and therefore could not be ignored any longer. AIDS, although not inherently linked to sexual orientation, was first recorded in gay men, which led to a decade long fight against homophobia and fear. The underlying ignorance of the public, promoted by the unprofessional and disrespectful actions of the government, led to an increase in the visibility of homophobia. This paired with the previously established generally negative social attitude towards gay men, in particular, led to immense strain on an already marginalized group of people.

HIV/AIDS, an immunosuppressant disease, became an epidemic in the early 80s, mainly within gay communities, leading to it being coined Gay-related Immune deficiency (GRID). Human immunodeficiency virus suppresses a person’s immune system through targeting cells that fight infection. If left untreated HIV can progress to AIDS, which is medically defined as a person having less than 200 CD4 cells per cubic milliliter of blood or as having multiple opportunistic infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis ('What Are HIV and AIDS?'). Without treatment, HIV will most likely progress to AIDS within 10 years, which has a high mortality rate ('HIV Overview'). As the first recorded cases of AIDS in 1981 were documented, the majority of them were white, gay men. During 1981 and 1982 terms such as gay cancer and GRID became prevalent in both medical and common language. As these marginalizing terms became favored in American society, the perception that AIDS only affected gay men deepened, which allowed for homophobia fueled by fear to affect the publics’ ability to see past prejudice and stigma ('A Timeline'). This continued throughout the decade even though the medical community had made significant progress in research, determining AIDS was not caused by casual contact or because of sexual orientation. The AIDS crisis magnified homophobia and was therefore instrumental in uniting the LGBT community which had been split based on orientation prior to the 80s.

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The 1970s were a defining decade in terms of societal change, as abortion became legal, better contraceptives became available and the gay pride movement led to an overall increase in acceptance of the LGBT community, mainly within the younger generations (Landau). The majority of the population, however, continued to ignore the community. Once the AIDS crisis began in the 80s, this majority had to acknowledge and position themselves in regards to the LGBT community. This meant that many had to face their underlying fears of, or issues with the queer community, which led to a manifestation of negative connotations, stigmas and discrimination regarding AIDS as well as the LGBT community.

During the onset of the AIDS crisis in the early 80s public opinions were influenced through the fear of contracting the disease, the lack of knowledge surrounding the topic, and ignorance based on stigmatization and stereotypes. The ignorance of the general public was also fueled by the lack of communication between the medical community and the remainder of society, therefore many people only had access to older and potentially irrelevant information. Between 1981 and 1984 research was being conducted to determine how AIDS was transmitted, but this information was not being communicated sufficiently or professionally. This paired with the fear of a new, unknown epidemic fueled stigmatization and discrimination, as people began to view gay men as dangerous. In these four years, the death toll increased from 121 deaths in 1981 to 3,665 deaths in 1984, which was a large enough increase for the majority of the population to notice and start looking for information ('History of HIV and AIDS'). The lack of professional guidance from the government as well as the medical industry during this crucial moment in the development of the public’s perception of the AIDS crisis enabled homophobia and discrimination based on false information and fear regarding the spread of the disease. Examples of ignorance based on homophobia started developing within the medical field from the beginning of the crisis. As more details were discovered pertaining to the spread of AIDS and who it could affect, published doctors began debating their moral obligation to care for patients with AIDS (Christensen). Although such events happened towards the beginning of the crisis, they were not fueled by fear, but by homophobia. As soon as it became common knowledge that AIDS was associated with gay men, moral debates concerning the Hippocratic oath became common as discrimination against the LGBT community was omnipresent at the time. This reached a peak when New York physician Joseph Sonnabend was threatened with an eviction notice due to caring for patients with AIDS in his office. This became America’s first official AIDS discrimination lawsuit ('A Timeline'). Along with the discrimination LGBT people faced by the medical community as well as the general public, they were also lacking beneficial information on what was happening to their community. This lack of overall support in all areas led to the LGBT community uniting in a way the pride movement had not achieved. During the first four years of the 1980s, discrimination and stigmatization of the gay community were mainly based on the fear of AIDS, largely due to the lack of general knowledge. As medical knowledge increased, public understanding did not, meaning discrimination associated with being gay and having AIDS now stemmed from homophobia and ignorance.

Throughout the decade the US government, actively ignored and ridiculed the events of the AIDS crisis in crucial moments, encouraging the public to perceive AIDS as only being a threat to the gay community. Through the White Houses’ lack of respect, it became socially acceptable and normal to discriminate against LGBT people regardless of their HIV status. This motivated the community to unite to protect their lives and support each other through the crisis and beyond. The AIDS crisis was actively ignored by the government for over half of the decade. This was showcased, between 1982 and 1984, during various official press conferences involving the deputy press secretary Larry Speakes and journalist Lester Kinsolving. In Speakes’ statements, he often made light of the situation while implying that Kinsolving was gay due to his interest in the AIDS crisis and the White Houses’ lack of concern. During these press conferences, the press pool would often laugh at Speakes’ ill-advised homophobic jokes, which shows the overall lack of concern and compassion towards the LGBT community and the number of people affected by AIDS. This attitude was also reflected in the president: Ronald Reagan’s response to the AIDS crisis. The first time Reagan ever mentioned AIDS in public was on September 17th, 1985 ('Reagan Administration's'). It took him 5 years, 15,900 cases and almost 5700 deaths to publically acknowledge an epidemic that had already challenged and shaped his country’s society (Christensen). The White Houses’ active avoidance of the crisis encouraged open homophobia in all aspects of society. Although the encouragement of homophobic views alienated the LGBT community from many aspects of mainstream society, it brought the community together in an unprecedented way. Before the AIDS crisis and the homophobia that accompanied it, there was a disconnect in the LGBT community based on privilege and orientation. The governmental, medical and public responses to the crisis enforced discrimination against all LGBT people, which compelled them to stand together against oppression ('How the AIDS'). Foundations and organizations such as ACT UP were formed to protest against LGBT and AIDS discrimination. ACT UP was one of the most influential organizations, leading several protests in the late 80s, such as the St. Patrick Cathedral demonstrations that over 4500 people attended (Jonsen and Stryker). These demonstrations were instrumental in creating a social change regarding the AIDS crisis, which began in the 1990s.

The AIDS crisis took place at a crucial time in the history of LGBT rights, as it appeared just after the pride movement started gaining positive traction. As there were a lot of stigmas and stereotypes surrounding AIDS diagnoses, many relating to being gay, the LGBT community began facing more blatant homophobia. This paired with the preexisting, more concealed discrimination led to the consolidation of the entire community. As the LGBT community gained attention mainly due to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, many people associated being gay with having AIDS. These misconceptions weren’t cleared up until the early 90’s when the government as well as American society changed their approach to the crisis and became more open to civil conversations, leading to an eventual decrease in stigmatization surrounding AIDS and the LGBT community. The development of the AIDS crisis in its early stages was critical in the development of the LGBT community as well as its public reception.

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Aids Crisis In America: History And Reasons. (2021, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/aids-crisis-in-america-history-and-reasons/
“Aids Crisis In America: History And Reasons.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/aids-crisis-in-america-history-and-reasons/
Aids Crisis In America: History And Reasons. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/aids-crisis-in-america-history-and-reasons/> [Accessed 12 Jun. 2024].
Aids Crisis In America: History And Reasons [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 25 [cited 2024 Jun 12]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/aids-crisis-in-america-history-and-reasons/
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