October is LGBTQ History month. And while the HIV virus is now a known thing, the AIDS crisis or rather that government’s lack of action regarding the spreading of the virus amongst LGBTQ communities in the early 80s, shows just how strong a community united can bring about change.
A bit of background. The HIV virus began in central Africa and made its way over to the US via Zaire and Haiti. The HIV virus is more easily spread through Anal Sex which is why it affected gay communities more than straight or even lesbian communities. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, LGBTQ activists across the country made significant advances in gay rights including protection against discrimination in employment and through criminal attorneys the decriminalization of sodomy. It was during this time, the early 1970s during the sexual revolution, that the first AIDS cases were appearing in Los Angeles.
The first official government report was in June of 1981. A government bulletin in Morbidity and Mortality reported,
In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died.
It garnered media attention throughout the early 80s. An appearance from gay and men’s health activist Larry Kramer appeared on the Today Show to discuss the anger in the gay community. But while this was going on the HIV virus was spreading to hemophiliacs during blood transfusions as well as injection drug users. However, many people who objected to LGBTQ were referring to the outbreak of AIDS cases as the gay plague and using it as a way to justify anti-gay rhetoric and that God was smiting them.
Finally, in 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler discovered that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus. She also developed a test to see if a patient had AIDS and predicted a vaccine by 1986 (well that never happened). It wasn’t until years later that Reagan even acknowledged AIDS was a problem or the government offered a treatment (called AZT) that slowed down the progression of the disease but did not cure it.
In 1987, The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP formed and their activism helped speed up the government’s response to the AIDS crisis. Through the late 80s and early 90s, ACT UP and other activists fought for the rights of men’s health. By 1995, AIDS was the single greatest killer of men between the ages of 25-44. It was also the year that the first protease inhibitors, a new type of drug, was able to halt or reverse the progression of the AIDS. However, this treatment is extremely expensive (Currently HIV thrives in poor regions who can’t afford treatment like Mississippi).
It wasn’t until 2003 when George W. Bush enacts the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR which delivers life-saving HIV medicine to poor people around the world. The program currently has provided medicine to 14 million people all over the world.