AIDS Crisis

Updated: Jan 24

Initial Outbreak

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).


This is one of the early campaign posters for the AIDS crisis. The depiction of an interracial couple was common to emphasize that HIV was not a virus that solely affected white males, but rather that it could infect anyone. Campaigns often depicted sexual images in order to encourage the idea that safe sex was “sexy” and that using a condom should be a common practice. (Image Source: National Library of Medicine)

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.

Health Repercussions

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.

Public Reaction

Activists with ACT UP gather on Wall Street to protest and fight for change. These activists placed pressure on the federal government to provide more funding and help in researching possible treatments for HIV and AIDS. This prominent group used multiple tactics to depict their anger. They would lay down to represent those who lost their lives and were even known to use fake blood and raid offices to make their voices heard. (Image Source: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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.

Current Overview

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.

This chart from depicts the number of “New Infections by Race and Transmission Group U.S. 2014-2018.” The graph shows that gay people of color are more adversely affected by this virus than white people and those communities are most at risk, but they often receive the least number of resources to help. Heterosexual individuals are less likely to contract HIV. However, as shown by the graph, straight people are also at risk for infection, and anyone can be exposed to AIDS. (Image Source: CDC, Estimated HIV Incidence and Prevalence in the United States 2014–2018)

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