Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Countdown to 30 Years: The Eighties and AIDS

By Aldona Martinka, IRMA intern

As the thirtieth anniversary of the very beginning of the AIDS crisis draws near, IRMA will be counting down the last five days with a short series on AIDS history. It will explore where we began, where we are now, and where we are going as we continue to battle this disease with hope and determination. This is part one of five. 

In less than a week it will have been 30 years since the first mention of the disease in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that would someday be known as AIDS . This June 5 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the global fight against AIDS. No one knew it then, but the disease behind that cluster of cases of rare Pneumonia would shock the world, set people against each other, and eventually bring together politicians, scientists, and humanitarian workers in what has been perhaps the greatest public health battle since Polio.

Struggling to understand this new disease, the first step was to name it. The first proposed name for the illness was Gay-Related Immunodeficiency (GRID), but that was amended to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1982 for the sake of accuracy. Nevertheless, the mindset that it was a “gay problem” persisted for years, causing stigma that would inhibit HIV education and prevention, causing harm to countless victims both gay and not. The virus that causes AIDS was not discovered until 1984. It eventually came to be called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as we know it today. 1984 was also the year that Ryan White, poster child for the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and future namesake for national legislation, was diagnosed with the disease, having contracted it from a contaminated blood transfusion for his hemophilia.

In the next year AIDS became the topic of choice for everyone from scientists to journalists; from doctors to celebrities; from politicians to housewives. Ignorance and misinformation abounded, and many suffering from HIV/AIDS were shunned and discriminated against. Ryan White was not allowed to return to his middle school in Indiana after being diagnosed, and 117 parents and 50 teachers signed a petition to ban him from the school. When he was eventually permitted to attend, the White family had to deal with death threats and property damage, and White himself was ostracized at school. The Ray brothers, the children of a Florida family, were also hemophiliacs, who had contracted HIV through blood transfusions, and their parents also experienced exclusion. After they won a court battle to be allowed to attend school their home was burned down. At this point in history AIDS meant impending death, and caretakers could only try to make their patients and loved ones comfortable as they passed away.

Despite all the fear and the anger there was also hope. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in 1987at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, the same year that arsonists attacked the Ray’s home, and the same year that the first drug for the treatment of AIDS was approved: AZT. ACT UP would be one of the most important HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations ever, and AZT and the antiretrovirals that followed it would lengthen the lives of those afflicted by this horrible disease that had once been a swift death sentence. AIDS patients could even hope for relatively normal lives. Condoms also became a hot topic as they appeared in PSAs and ads across the country, beginning the de-stigmatization of protection methods that could save lives.


[If an item is not written by an IRMA member, it should not be construed that IRMA has taken a position on the article's content, whether in support or in opposition.]

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a strange article.
The gay community that was almost destroyed and was certainly permanently transformed by AIDS in the 80s is invisible here, except with reference to GRID. "Politicians, scientists, and humanitarian workers" get a shout out, and Ryan White gets half of the text. But where is the agency and activism of people with HIV and their lovers, friends and communities? It was the LGBT community--so recently birthed by the Gay Liberation Movement and celebrating a new sexual culture-- along with a few wonderful doctors that responded to the relentless wave of disease and death with both care-taking and activist demands for action by government and medical research. The stigma of AIDS has its roots in its early association with gay sex--anal sex. IRMA confronts that specific stigma by its very visiblity and calls for a microbicide that will make buttfucking safe. This post, by erasing queer sexual and political culture, perpetuates the stigma. It doesn't belong here.
Jeanne

Mapping Pathways said...

Jeanne,

My intention with this article was not to exclude any group of people, let alone the entire LGBT community. AIDS has devastated the gay community since its discovery, and in the United States no community has been more greatly impacted by these last three decades of the disease. Though my canvas in this blog post was necessarily small, I tried to paint a broad picture so I could not explore any topic as much as I would have liked. There are books upon books elaborating on what little I got to say here, and I encourage anyone with any interest at all to do some searching at the local library. Gay and other men who have sex with men, as well as the whole LGBT community, form a huge part of AIDS history in this country, and I regret that this post gave the impression that they were being excluded. I consider gay rights and homophobia to be severe humanitarian issues, so I had hoped it was clear that the amazing activists you mention should be included in the category of humanitarian workers. As for the three sentences about Ryan White, I believe that they are warranted. He, more than any other single person, served (and continues to serve) as the poster child for AIDS stigmatization and the cruelty of the ignorant.

I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with an organization as progressive and far-reaching as IRMA is in the field of HIV prevention. IRMA’s advocacy for rectal microbicides has the potential to save so many lives, and every IRMA member works very hard to battle stigma and bigotry in the quest to make RMs widely available. By not focusing on anal sex, however, this article does not erase “queer sexual and political culture” nor does it perpetuate stigma. Too few people in the eighties knew that AIDS is everyone’s epidemic, not just a “gay disease”. We know that today, so in writing from a broad perspective I do not feel that the LGBT community is invisible in this post, but that after thirty years we as a world should remember all aspects of what the fight against AIDS has been so that we can learn from it.

Best,
Aldona

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