When Nancy Reagan passed away in March, many people across the nation mourned the death of a former first lady, actress, and activist. But the gay community wasn’t somber. You could even say some of us were jubilant. “If there is a hell, both Ronny and Nancy are roasting,” wrote one of the Sisters of Indulgence, a San Francisco-based protest group that fought long and hard at the peak of the AIDS crisis. The Guardian memorialized Reagan as “the first lady who looked away.” LGBTQ Nation recounted the jubilant yet emotional response across social media. It was Nancy Reagan who turned a blind eye, and convinced her husband to do the same, as thousands upon thousands of gay men died from a mysterious disease. One of the men she ignored was her longtime friend, actor Rock Hudson.
His death from AIDS showed the lengths to which she would go to protect her reputation and stay within party lines. Her death offered a final chapter in a long, painful saga that our community will never forget.
Though our story has evolved to include legalized marriage and unprecedented levels of acceptance, we’d be remiss to push through Pride month without remembering our forefathers. They were the ones who battled against, and often succumbed to, one of the deadliest epidemics in American history.
No Other Crisis Compares
“It occurred to me…that the opioid epidemic is the new AIDS in this respect. Its toll in one demographic—mostly white, working-class, and rural—vastly outweighs its impact among urbanites. For many of us in the elite, it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation,” writes Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine. Sure, the isolation of the opioid crisis makes it a distant cousin of the AIDS crisis. But the new AIDS? That’s a bit far-reaching.
Unlike the AIDS crisis, the opioid crisis has government-sponsored calls to action airing during the news. There’s a task force working diligently to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths. The cause of those deaths is known, which means those deaths are preventable. In that respect, the opioid and AIDS crises couldn’t be further apart. If this level of awareness permeated culture back in the 1980s, our community would have an entirely different history.
There isn’t a clear consensus on the start of AIDS. Though the first cases weren’t recognized until 1981, it’s possible the virus was circulating throughout the United States as early as 1970. In July of ‘81, 26 gay men were diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Their illness, a mixture of symptoms including KD, was called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. There were 159 cases total by year’s end. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis was founded that year as well.
Then, the effects were immediate but there was little comprehension. The gay community was losing members quickly and painfully but there was no explanation.
“One of our young trainers, very good-looking with a beautiful body, got sick and went back to Pennsylvania to his family. Four months later, we got a call from his sister saying he was very sick and the doctors did not think he would last the week,” gym owner John Blair told The Daily Intelligencer, a sub-publication of New York Magazine. “We jumped into our car and raced to his bedside. I cannot tell you the horror I felt as I walked into his hospital room and saw this old man in bed with tubes in his arms and nose. He was skin and bones and could barely talk. To see this once-young, healthy boy deteriorate so fast was devastating.”
Blair’s reality became the reality for thousands and thousands of others. By 1983, there were more than 1,000 reported cases and almost as many deaths. AIDS patients were vilified—evicted from their homes, branded as junkies and societal rejects. Even their doctors were ostracized for treating them. There was mass hysteria but minimal information. The initial reaction wasn’t to help us; it was to separate us. Cancel the Pride parade, remove the bodies from the hospitals, steer clear of the community.
The fight against AIDS was also a fight for equality.
The Fight Continues
From 1984-1987, the AIDS crisis offered two narratives. On one hand, you had legions of scientists who dedicated their careers to finding a cure. Dr. Robert Gallo, of the National Cancer Institute, successfully isolated the virus that caused AIDS. At the time, it was called HTLV-III. Doctors like Gallo researched tirelessly, working to understand the causes of infection and start trials for medication and vaccines.
On the other hand, you had a president who wouldn’t get involved. The fight against AIDS was also a fight for equality.
1987 was a landmark year. It was during this year AZT became the first FDA-approved HIV drug. But a one-year supply topped out at $10,000 and wasn’t covered by medical insurance. ACT UP, or the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, was also born this year. It was then that our community decided to speak up and stop being ignored. Our lives were important, and we needed the rest of America to know it. 1987 also became the first year that Ronald Reagan publicly mentioned AIDS.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Congress passed anti-discrimination legislation to protect the rights of those with HIV/AIDS and those who were suspected of having HIV/AIDS. And years passed before the government and public had a clear understanding of the disease. It was only after it started to affect straight people and celebrities (i.e. Magic Johnson) that it became a universal issue. We’d lost dozens of thousands of people in our community by that point. And that was just in the U.S. To quantify the number of gay men who died from AIDS worldwide is to accomplish the impossible.
Our community isn’t so far removed from the AIDS crisis. It’s astonishing to think of the leaps and bounds we’ve made since. But it’s frightening to think that, as recent as 20 years ago, gay men were still fighting for their lives. Today, HIV is still a major concern for us. The HRC estimates gay men make up 55% of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States. Yet, we only account for 2% of the population. 1 in 6 gay men are expected to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes. And those statistics are even more staggering when you break down the research by ethnic background. Though the AIDS crisis is behind us, the threat of HIV infection is still very real.
There have been dozens of shows and movies in recent years that have captured the rage and sadness of that bygone era. From Angels in America to How to Survive a Plague to this year’s ABC miniseries When We Rise, Hollywood has worked hard to remember those lives lost. When we watch these films, it’s clear the AIDS crisis is a vital part of our history. The gay community wouldn’t be as strong as it is today without it. It’s more of a reason to be appreciative of the rights and the freedoms we have today. And it’s motivation for us to keep fighting—to never let something like this happen again.
This year, as Chechen men struggle to escape gay concentration camps (and our government officials remain mostly silent about it), and as our president slowly erodes the progress we made during the Obama era, we need to remember the AIDS epidemic. Not just to mourn those we lost and those who paved the way for the lives we live today, but as a reminder to guard our future. Just 30 years ago, we had to fight, yell, and scream to get the American government to treat an epidemic that happened on its own soil. We don’t want to end up there again, begging for help that we deserve. This Pride, let the AIDS epidemic move you to action.