AIDS. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The disease caused by the HIV retrovirus, a sexually transmitted pathogen that originated in West-Central Africa. When untreated, the immune system is severely weakened, and victims become wildly susceptible to infections, severe weight loss, and cancer. This is AIDS.
The first 15 years of the disease’s presence in the United States was an incredibly important time in the queer community, as it disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men.
The AIDS crisis got started in the US in 1981. It lasted until the first anti-retroviral treatment was developed in 1996 (though of course, this treatment was expensive and the disease was predominately experienced in the poorer areas and demographics of America).
All of the early victims of the disease were queer. Before the disease was officially named AIDS, it was sometimes referred to as GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. This phrase that just begs to be used to justify God’s supposed anger with the gay rights movement survived in literature until the end of the crisis.
Our generation needs to understand and feel the weight of the crisis. Entire friend groups went extinct, or left just a few people standing with the pain of all those that had been taken. People had to watch their partners slowly wither away from something the government was pointedly, blatantly ignoring.
People felt they were being intentionally killed by those in power who hated them for who they were, misunderstood them, or were scared of them. Thus, people thought that those in power chose to ignore the victims’ existence rather than confront it.
Whenever a reporter would ask a question in the White House Press Room about the epidemic, it would be met with laughter, jokes about homosexuality, assurances that the President was not concerned, and comments along the lines of: “Oh god I don’t want to talk to another guy about that! Yuck!”
It took three years and over 12,000 deaths for President Reagan to even mention the word “AIDS” to the public. Even then, in 1985, nothing much was being done. A drug was developed around then for treatment, but it did nothing except prolong the suffering for a bit and drain the pockets of the patients’ loved ones in the process. Additionally, it was later discovered that the dose being prescribed to patients was toxic!
I want to impress upon people my age that this is something deeply important to our community that can’t be forgotten. This hit at a time when the gay rights movement was only about ten years old. Communities of queer people were just starting to be able to live and love openly, with pride, and were then suddenly decimated. Some who remained in the closet were forcibly outed by their disease.
We didn’t live through it, and many of the people that could have shared their stories with us are dead or were left lonely and unconnected. We have to keep the knowledge of this event and the memory of all those affected by it alive. Ways to start to educate and familiarize yourself are to read And the Band Played On, Google “ACT UP,” watch Pose, and ask any older people, queer or not, what they know about it.