Updated: Jan 24
In June of 1981, the CDC began reporting on unusual cases of pneumonia and cancer in gay men in Los Angeles. The first known display of AIDS was on June 5th, 1981 when the CDC published an article discussing a rare lung infection that was found in 5 young gay men who were previously healthy. Over the next few days, there was an influx of opportunistic illnesses with no obvious origins. By the end of the year, 337 cases have been reported of the mysterious immune deficiency behind these infections with upwards of 90% of infections found in males whose sexual identity was gay. 130, or around 40%, of patients, are dead by December 31st. This disorder, which would later be named AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), is caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
The virus can be transmitted or “caught” by anyone regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic, but it is most common among gay men. HIV, the precursor to AIDS, is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, vaginal fluid, semen, or breast milk. Due to a lack of sexual education and resources for the LGBTQ community at the time, many men did not use condoms or take precautionary steps, such as getting tested, before engaging in sex, which allowed the virus to rapidly spread through the community without any resistance. Because of this and its prominent effect on the LBGTQ community (and the generally homophobic atmosphere of the early 1980s), the public was reluctant to endorse funding and research for the epidemic, coining the term “gay cancer” within a month of the first reported case. HIV would go on to infect 8-10 million people over the next decade.
At the start of the AIDS crisis, there were no treatments or medications available to help individuals once they contracted HIV. Left untreated, the virus would often develop into AIDS once the number of CD4 cells reached a minimum threshold, which resulted in a severe weakening of one's immune system. Because of this, many infected parties caught other opportunistic illnesses, leading them to lethal infections of pneumonia, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and many more. With AIDS, their immune system was unable to fight off these infections, ultimately leading to death for many.
Gay men were the main driving force responding to the AIDS epidemic and working for change and answers to the novel virus. The rest of the public had virtually no response as their communities weren’t being as greatly affected and the views towards the gay community were very controversial. Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz were two gay men who advocated for sexual education during the epidemic. They published a piece of work explaining the importance of gay men using condoms during sex in order to prevent the spread of HIV. At the time, however, people still believe that HIV was restricted to white gay men. However, this was not the case as the virus could infect anybody. Therefore, activists began emphasizing condom use for people of color and lesbians during their later campaigns. While local communities took initiative against the virus, the federal government was not as active. At the beginning of the crisis, they provided very little funding for research about the virus or preventative measures for affected communities. Additionally, many people felt as though the government took too broad of a stance on fighting the virus, focusing their campaigns on “all” for every member of the public rather than honing in on the communities that were being disproportionately affected. The lack of response gave the virus ample time to spread at an unprecedented pace and affect thousands of people, mostly gay men.
To date, 770,000 people have died from AIDS since 1981. In 2019, 38 million people were living with HIV worldwide - there were 1.2 million in the US alone. However, the flood of support for the LGBT community within the past two decades has allowed for major developments in HIV/AIDS research. Today, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives if they seek treatment- and will likely never develop AIDS.