On June 5, 1981, the first reported cases were announced of a disease spreading amongst gay men in the US and elsewhere. Originally defined by other names such as homophobic “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency), it came to be defined as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in more advanced cases.
HIV.gov’s “A Timeline of HIV and AIDS” is a site run by U.S. Department of Health & Human Services describing the history of the disease. Avert.org is an HIV and AIDS charity based in the UK and has another timeline and history of HIV/AIDS, from its origins to milestone events to today.
The history of HIV/AIDS is infuriating, the worst being the similar attitudes of the wealthy today who are willing to let the poor die of COVID-19. In the 1980s, cisheterobinary people, white people, christians and other religious fanatics and rightwing ideologues saw HIV/AIDS first as a gay male disease, then also as a drug users’ disease. Governments worldwide saw these people as “undesirables” and were willing (wanted) to let the disease run rampant and kill them.
Early on there was limited or no testing of blood, especially by blood collection agencies, which spread the disease through surgeries and blood distribution. The people running the Canadian Red Cross walked away without any punishment despite their incompetence which spread it to 30,000 people, killing at least 8,000. Similar stories happened in other countries.
HIV/AIDS was still viewed as a “gay disease”, and many people who contracted it, including celebrities, tried to conceal their disagnoses (and some their later deaths) from the disease such as Isaac Asimov, Tom Cassidy, Roy Cohn, Jerry Smith, Greg Louganis, among many others. The stigma led some to discriminate against some, differentiating between “victims” (e.g. Ryan White, Arthur Ashe) and people “who caused their own problems” (e.g. those who used drugs, active in non-cishetero sex). People with HIV/AIDS are patients and human beings, no matter how they contracted it, an attitude which most of society holds now.
Attitudes only changed when HIV/AIDS spread to the mainstream in two ways. First, it began to spread amongst cisgender heterosexual people who were not drug users nor amongst any high risk groups. Second, people paid attention when high profile celebrities announced they had HIV or died from it.
Rock Hudson was a hollywood heartthrob for decades who hid his homosexuality with macho roles and fake relationships with women. When he died of AIDS in October 1985, soon after appearing on the TV show “Dynasty”, it sent shockwaves through the public and the media. At the time most were ignorant of how HIV spread, and many believed it could be transmitted by kissing (it can’t). Hudson had kissed Linda Evans’ character in multiple episodes. His death resulted in better information and public education about the spread of HIV.
ACT UP was critical in spreading the message and bringing public attention to the crisis. Without their protests and activism, the US and other governments would have done nothing. Many objected to their confrontational tactics, but would change and research have happened without it?
As was mentioned when Dr. Anthony Fauci was picked in 2020 to lead the fight against COVID-19, he was a key person in the fight against HIV in the 1980s. While many in ACT UP felt that Fauci and others did not do enough quickly enough, progress was made. Just as Fauci did to assuage the concerns of and build trust with Black americans about the COVID-19 vaccine, he put aside the personal feelings and worked with ACT UP and others, pushing for funding and research, for public messages to spread information over misinformation.
The single greatest change in public opinion of HIV/AIDS may have come in November 1991. On November 7, Magic Johnson held a press conference announcing he had HIV and was immediately retiring from the game. Then on November 22, Freddie Mercury publicly announced that he had AIDS, dying two days later at the age of 45. The idea that one of the world’s top athletes and most popular entertainers could have the disease made people realize it can hit anyone.
Johnson and Mercury’s influence didn’t end on those two days. Johnson, with the help of advances in HIV treatment, returned to the NBA in 1996. While his final half season wasn’t as good as he was before he first retired, that could be attributed to age (36) and a four year layoff, not his HIV diagnosis. He was still a force in the Lakers’ fight for the playoffs. And on April 20, 1992, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert took place, raising millions for HIV/AIDS treatment and awareness.
More important than fund raising, the concert changed attitudes. Many of the musicians who performed had histories of making homophobic comments and uttering slurs, as did the public. To hear that one of their biggest heroes and influences was either gay or bisexual and died of AIDS changed how many acted and spoke about those with the disease. While the worldwide TV audience for the FMTC (1 billion) wasn’t as large as the Live Aid concert in July 1985 (1.9 billion), it still remains one of the largest viewed events in history, raising awareness worldwide.
Another celebrity who became important at that time was Elizabeth Taylor. During the height of the crisis in the early 1990s, she illegally imported and distributed experimental HIV medications when the US government wouldn’t, creating a safe house for people with HIV/AIDS. Many credit her with saving countless lives.
The progress of HIV diagnosis, treatment and medicine was crucial in bringing the disease under control. Early on, doctors were fumbling in the dark trying to figure out what it was, how it spread, looking for the wrong diagnoses (men and women have different symptoms, thus women often had shorter life expectancy). But as time passed, diagnosis and early intervention slowed the disease to a manageable level. Those who watched POSE are likely aware of how they spoke of AZT in the late 1980s, later replaced by anti-retroviral and inhibitor drugs and prevention medicines like PrEP.
The life expectancy of those with HIV after diagnosis went from months in the early 1980s to years and now decades. People who have HIV can expect to grow old and die of natural causes, not waste away in hospitals. And the change in societal attitudes means they’ll die with their families and friends at their sides, not abandoned and alone as many of the early victims did.
Recently I read someone say of HIV, “In the 1980s, it killed you. Now it’s diabetes.” That’s not a perfect analogy, but I would agree. Yes, HIV/AIDS is still a concern and far from solved. But now it is a survivable and manageable disease as long as you have the medicines to treat it. And with any luck, we’ll see a cure within our lifetimes.