AIDS on Gay the Community during Reagan Years

AIDS on Gay the Community during the Reagan Years

Since the first AIDS cases were reported in 1981, through mid-1994 more than 402,000 AIDS cases, and more than 241,000 deaths have been reported in the United States alone. It is estimated that nearly 1 million Americans had been infected with the virus through the mid-1990s, but had not yet developed clinical symptoms. In addition, although the vast majority of documented cases have occurred in the United States, AIDS cases have also been reported in almost every country in the world.

HIV infection and AIDS represent among the most pressing public-policy and public-health problems worldwide. Concerted efforts are under way to address the problem at many levels, and they offer hope for successful strategies to combat HIV-induced disease.

In 1979, the first reported AIDS case occurred in New York, and by mid-June 1981, unusual immune system failure among gay men was surfacing in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initially named the disease GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency, because it was prominently found among homosexuals. It appeared to be a lifestyle-associated illness, linked to excessive stress to the immune system. Researchers believed that a highly infectious agent, which depleted T cells and could be transmitted through intercourse, blood, or blood products from mother to fetus, caused GRID.

HIV kills or impairs cells of the immune system and ultimately it dismantles the body’s ability to fight infections and certain cancers. The virus is transmitted through blood and semen and belongs to a class of viruses known as retroviruses because of their unique ability to transcribe their genetic material (RNA) into DNA and actually insert that piece of DNA in the DNA of the host cell.

In July of 1982, the disease was renamed AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Since then, the disease’s origins, the factors affecting it, the causes behind it, the symptoms arising from it, the groups at risk from it, and the practices leading to it have been widely and comprehensively researched. Despite painstaking efforts and billions of dollars spent on research, despite the numerous drugs created to control and relieve its various symptoms, there is still no cure for it. Many blame the delayed political response and lack of acknowledgment by the Reagan Administration.

There are various properties that make HIV infections unique. The first fact is the HIV genetic material (RNA) is integrated into the host cell’s genetic material. This makes this type of virus very threatening because it is unlikely that any kind of treatment can be developed to remove the viral genetic material.

First evident in urban gay men, AIDS moved an already politically organized gay community to create service, information, and political organizations, such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Those groups have lobbied the federal government for funding and favorable policies for years. ACT UP was formed in 1987 to urge speed in drug approval and to protest high prices for AIDS drugs. By successfully promoting reforms, ACT UP and other advocates have provided a model for other disease groups, particularly breast cancer advocates.

During the 1980s, AIDS groups accused the government of neglecting its duty in responding to AIDS. Critics cite government reluctance to promote condom use as a prevention method, and the fact that President Ronald Reagan did not mention AIDS publicly until April 1987, six years after the epidemic began.

The epidemic’s spread to people of color, often drug users and their intimates, introduced race into the politics of AIDS. Competition for funding and influence arose between gay and minority groups. Disagreements emerged about prevention methods, in particular needle exchange programs. Many African-Americans and Hispanics viewed needle exchange as promoting drug use in their communities, while others cited its role in curbing HIV transmission.

During the 1980s, the median age of HIV infection was older than 30 years. It dropped to 25 during the period from 1987 to 1991. From 1987 to 1991, one in every four newly infected individuals in the U.S. was age 22 or under. Despite enormous need, only a handful of programs specifically targeting young gay men have been designed and evaluated. Individualized risk-reduction counseling followed by peer education and referrals to drug, counseling and health services were reported to be an effective strategy for decreasing unprotected anal intercourse among gay male adolescents. Community-level programs can also reach large numbers of young men. Societal homophobia may impede implementing effective prevention programs for gay youth and may discourage young gay men from accessing prevention services.

This stigma has manifested itself in the forms of discrimination and fear of “people living with AIDS” (PLWAs). As a result, the social implications of the disease have been removed from people with other life threatening conditions to PLWAs. Unfortunately, they are not only faced with a terminal illness but also social isolation and constant discrimination throughout society. Various explanations have been suggested as to the underlying causes of these discriminatory stigmas. Many studies point to the relationship the disease has with deviant behavior, while others suggest that fear of contagion is the actual culprit. When examining the existing literature and putting it into societal context, it could lead one to believe that there is no one cause of this societal phobia. Instead, there would appear to be associated factors that influence society’s attitudes towards AIDS and PLWAs. (YOU MIGHT WANT TO INSERT YOUR INTERVIEW QUESTIONS HERE)

The focus that the media has put on specific groups unfairly places an emphasis on high-risk groups rather than high-risk activities. As a result, the word AIDS alone conjures, for many, images of those who stray from what society has deemed normal behavior. Homosexuals, in western culture, have almost always suffered the effects of being labeled abnormal as a group. The same is true of prostitutes, IV drug users, and people of color. It is significant to mention that populations that consist of people of color are the parts of the world that are most severely effected by AIDS, such as countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, and Haiti. As a result, a strong association has also been made between AIDS and people of color.

The fact that AIDS is associated with already stigmatized groups has two principal effects. First and most obvious, is that society’s negative attitudes towards the groups in question are transferred to AIDS and PLWAs. Second, is an amplification of the existing negative feelings that society holds towards these specified groups as being associated with the likelihood of contracting HIV.

In the 1980s, school children who had contracted HIV through blood transfusions were stigmatized almost as badly as homosexuals and often not even allowed to attend public schools. It was only after the highly publicized case of Ryan White that something was done.

In the early years of AIDS, many PLWAs were actually refused service in North American hospitals and some were fired from their jobs upon announcing that they had AIDS.

As America remembers Ronald Reagan, it must never forget his abdication of leadership in the fight against the virus. History may ultimately judge his presidency by the men and women who have and will die of AIDS. A significant source of Reagan’s support came from the newly identified religious right and the Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell that has managed to gain even more support in the current Bush administration. Scientists, researchers and health care professionals at every level expressed the need for funding. The response of the Reagan administration was indifference.

At a White House state dinner, first lady Nancy Reagan expressed concern for a guest showing signs of significant weight loss. On July 25, 1985, the American Hospital in Paris announced that Rock Hudson had AIDS. Reagan ultimately addressed the issue of AIDS while president though his remarks came near the end of his second term. When he spoke, 36,058 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS and 20,849 had died.


Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military: Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993.

Hodgson, I. Culture, meaning and perception: explanatory models and the delivery of HIV care. Abstract MoPeD2772, XIIIth International AIDS Conference, Durban, South Africa, 2000. Available at

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987.

UNAIDS (United Nations Joint Programme on HIV / AIDS). 2002. Report on the Global HIV / AIDS Epidemic, 2002. Switzerland: UNAIDS.

Young, Ian. The Psychohistorical Origins of AIDS, An Interview with Casper Schidt. The AIDS Cult, 1997. Available at

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