In 1981, a New York Times headline announced ‘a Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.’ This headline was referring to AIDS, a mysterious disease that was breaking down immune systems in the patients referenced. At the time, little was known about the disease or its transmission.
Edmund White, the first president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first HIV/AIDS prevention organization, was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985. Edmund recalls the dehumanizing experience of being HIV-positive in a time when so little was known about the disease. “Mothers didn’t want me picking up their babies. People didn’t want to kiss you on the cheek. People certainly didn’t want to have sex with you, especially other gay people. It was very isolating and demeaning,” Edmund White said to CNN. “That was a long battle.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), by the year 2000, nearly half a million people had died of AIDS in the United States, and many more had been diagnosed and continued to live with the disease. In the 1980s and 90s, deaths were occurring at a rapid rate and few answers were being offered.
Larry Kramer, co-founder of GMHC, led countless activist demonstrations in the 1980’s and 90’s in New York City, demanding attention from government officials and the FDA to treat those with AIDS. “AIDS is a plague – numerically, statistically and by any definition known to modern public health – though no one in authority has the guts to call it one,” Larry Kramer says.
Larry Kramer notes that victims of AIDS were – and are – primarily minorities, namely gay men and people of color, making it easier for authorities to ignore the crisis, in his opinion. “Too many people hate the people that AIDS most affects: Gay people and people of color. I do not mean dislike, or feel uncomfortable with. I mean hate. Downright hate. Down and dirty hate,” Larry Kramer says.
While great strides have been made toward fighting HIV and AIDS by activists and health professionals since the time that the New York Times published their groundbreaking story, conversations about HIV and AIDS are still shrouded in stigma. By avoiding the very necessary conversation about HIV/AIDS, we are missing out on the opportunity to learn more about how to avoid contracting HIV and how to treat it with recent medical advancements.
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