By the early 1980’s solid progress had been made in the gay liberation movement. 1980 was the first year the Democratic Party openly included the fight for gay rights in their platform, this was quite the advancement since Harvey Milk faced backlash just half a decade earlier. Things were looking good for the homosexual community, the teens from the 70’s were now strong leaders in the early 80’s. That was until early 1982 when a few gay men in California and New York contracted a rare disease that the Morbity and Mortalitity Weekly Report said led to either cancer or a special pneumonia. Nobody knew much of it but it caused fear among the world, and homosexual men were thought to be a cause.
The disease did not have a definite cause, nobody knew where it came from or how to prevent it; they just knew it meant death. This horrified everyone, not just the gay community, but it did put them in a bad place; homophobia was the unsurprising outcome. Homosexual men were the primary patients, and many perished. This left the gay youth without mentors which many believed to be why gay rights slowed down significantly in the 1980s.
While it was originally believed that the disease was only in the gay community it quickly became an issue to the public as well. Another group, hemophiliacs were also greatly affected. Additionally Haitians and heroin users were also risk groups; this led to the diseases being nicknamed 4H Disease. Hemophiliacs, such as teenager Ryan White, contracted the disease when their blood transfusions were infected. This led to many deaths in young hemophiliacs since they received blood transfusions much more often than adults.
Ryan White quickly became a strong AIDs research advocate, in his final years he and his mother Jeanne fought tirelessly to educate people on AIDS. Ryan was one of the first young people to contract AIDs and he was not afraid to share his story with the public.
By sharing his story and exposing the disease, Ryan and Jeanne White educated much of the public. They were featured on magazine covers across the nation. This greatly helped homosexual teens who were feeling the heat, but it did not end their struggle completely.
The religious community took this an opportunity to share their anti homosexual opinions. People like Rev. Jerry Falwell who often stated HIV is God’s wrath on gay men, did whatever could to hold back the movement. They often attended gay right’sand AIDs research rallies to show their offensive signs.
The judgement did not just come from other communities, but even from the government. President Reagan was very hesitant to do anything about this new national epidemic. His communications director was blunt in his opinion of the issue stating that HIV is nature’s revenge. Reagan did next to nothing and despite 6,000 American’s dying of the disease, he remained silent. He waited until the end of his second term to say anything on the issue, even at this point he was brief and dry.
By this point, May of 1987, 36,058 Americans were diagnosed and 20,849 had died. HIV had spread to over 100 countries and nearly 50,000 people were in its grip worldwide.
But the gay community was resilient and they bounced back yet again. Many younger gay activists now took on the role of leaders since the previous ones were fighting the disease or were already dead. They tried to help raise awareness and encourage research. They were also the most welcoming community to AIDs victims. While most people were afraid to even touch an infected person, photographs often show gay youth hugging sick people at rallies.
The gay rights rallies quickly shifted their focus towards HIV/AIDS research. Despite backlash from many people around them such as the president and big religious communities, they continued doing what they did best. Raising awareness and hope.
-Alex Burdo April 14th, 2015 (revised April 21st 2015)
White, Allen. “Reagan’s AIDS Legacy / Silence Equals Death.” SFGate. Accessed April 22, 2015. http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Reagan-s-AIDS-Legacy-Silence-equals-death-2751030.php.
“Jerry Falwell, Polarizing Preacher Merged Religion, Politics, Dies at 73.” The Seattle Times. Accessed April 24, 2015.
Gottlieb, MS, HM Schanker, PT Fan, A. Saxon, and JD Weisan. “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Accessed April 13, 2015.