AIDS was and still is a public health crisis like no other. On the surface, AIDS is a terrible disease that began showing up in the early 1980s, and people afflicted with the disease died. 100% of them died. Thousands of people died in the early 1980s while medical science struggled to find the answers. More importantly our society and our political system gave AIDS the big "nada" when it came to priority, and money to tackle this terrible disease. Why? Because AIDS was considered a gay disease afflicting promiscuous homosexual men. How many lives could have been saved in the early years if AIDS had been given the priority it should have?
AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and is now understood to be caused by the HIV virus. A person afflicted with AIDS has their immune system weakened to the point where they are vulnerable to opportunistic infections that people with healthy immune systems are not. In the early 1980s gay men in New York and California began showing up with awful infections and cancers. No one understood what it was or how it spread. The disease didn't even have a name for a time.
What we did understand is it affected gay men. It became known as a gay disease, or a gay plague. The unofficial name for a while was Gay-related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. The common wisdom, or ignorance as it were, about the disease was that it was a gay disease and if you stayed away from gay people you were safe. Even though it was known that it wasn't limited to gay men, and that 100% of the victims died, there was no massive effort to educate the public on the real facts of the disease. More importantly, there was virtually no research money put into the scientific community to stop it. The conservative family values Reagan administration wouldn't touch it. After all, it was a gay disease.
In the absence of real factual information communicated to the public, the religious right filled the vacuum. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Christian right's Moral Majority, gave us this nugget:
AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.
In a society that supposedly values tolerance of people, how was Falwell's bigotry allowed to stand? He certainly doesn't represent my moral values. But we digress-
Finally the disease was given the name AIDS, which didn't brand it as a gay disease. Eventually it was discovered that people receiving blood transfusions were getting infected as well. The agencies in charge of the blood supply resisted full screening of the blood supply for the AIDS virus even after a reliable test could be performed. How many lives could have been saved if the blood supply had been tested right away?
The subject of the gay bathhouses is a tricky one. A bathhouse is a club where men can go and have sex with other men. In the days before AIDS bathhouses were a place where gay men could find willing sexual partners in a safe place without facing the bigotry of the straight world. Once it was known that AIDS was spread by sexual contact, it was clear that many gay men had become infected by sexual partners in the bathhouses. The cities of New York and San Francisco moved to close the bathhouses but there was a lot of resistance from the gay community. One could argue that men would still have unprotected sex outside the bathhouses, or that the bathhouses could provide free condoms and supervise men to prevent the spread of AIDS. In the end, it's clear the cities had no choice but to close the bathhouses.
Scientists struggled to find the answers to what caused AIDS in the early 1980s. Was it a new virus? Was it a virus already known about? Dr. Robert Gallo is one of the world's foremost biomedical researchers and is credited with co-discovering the AIDS virus along with a team of French researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The truth is the French researchers had isolated the AIDS virus nearly a year before Gallo published his results. The crucial blood test to determine if someone had the AIDS virus was likely delayed for a year, all because Gallo wanted to receive the credit for the discovery. Gallo and the Pasteur Institute battled for 3 years after that over patents, when energy should have been spent trying to conquer the disease. How many lives could have been saved if Gallo had put his ego aside and done the right thing for the common good?
The tragedy of AIDS wasn't that our population was infected with a deadly virus. The tragedy was so little was done to stop it in the early crucial period that thousands of people got sick and died needlessly. From the non-existent research dollars to the failure to screen the blood supply to society's blaming the gay lifestyle, AIDS was allowed to spread when it could have been stopped. President Reagan, whether you agreed with his politics or not, could deliver a speech on television that could move the country. Imagine if Reagan had gone on television in about 1982 and delivered this speech:
My fellow Americans - AIDS is the biggest public health crisis of our time. Right now, anyone who contracts the AIDS virus will die. It is not limited to gay people. Anyone who has sexual contact with an infected person, heterosexual or homosexual, will get the AIDS virus. Anyone who receives a blood transfusion with tainted blood will get the AIDS virus.
I am today committing 1 billion dollars to the scientific community for AIDS research. I am committing another 1 billion dollars to public education about AIDS. Together my friends, we are going to make AIDS impotent and obsolete!
Of course it didn't happen that way. Reagan was completely silent about AIDS until 1987, after more than 25,000 people had died of AIDS. Reagan was silent even after his close friend and fellow actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985. And yes it came out that Rock Hudson, the handsome womanizing leading man in so many movies, was gay.
Activity on AIDS and the public perception has evolved greatly in the years since the early 1980s. HIV-AIDS is no longer a death sentence. In 1991 basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. The world saw that this very public figure contracted HIV and was not gay or an intravenous drug user. Johnson and millions of others have been able to live with HIV by taking a combination of drugs that prevent the disease from becoming full-blown AIDS. Public education in the US has greatly reduced the rate of infections. However, in the poor countries of Africa the rate of infection was startling. Funds for developing the drugs and getting them to faraway places like Africa have increased greatly over the years, as the facts have become widely accepted. Of all people, George W Bush committed $15 billion over five to fight the disease worldwide in his 2003 state of the union address. Rock star Bono has been instrumental in pressuring politicians to continue the commitment. Bono credits Bush for the progress made on AIDS, though the two would certainly be on opposite sides of most political issues.
AIDS was a tragedy in the early 1980s when our inaction and fear-mongering caused so many people to needlessly get sick and die. I'm glad to say today that HIV-AIDS is no longer considered a gay disease or one that people contract because of their "sins". Today governments and charitable organizations are working together to eradicate this terrible disease.