The Beginning

In June of 1981, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported cases of a rare form of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii (PCP) in five relatively healthy young men living in Los Angeles. The one factor connecting all the men was that they were gay. By the fall, dozens more gay men in New York and California were diagnosed with either PCP or Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare but aggressive cancer usually afflicting older men of Mediterranean descent. While the cause remained unknown, public health officials conjectured that a common factor was at work in cases of what gay and mainstream press alike dubbed “gay pneumonia” and “gay cancer.” By the end of the year, there were 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men – 121 of them had died. This was just the beginning.

A gay man named Peter living in San Francisco says, dealing with death became as routine as reading the newspaper daily to check the obituaries to see if any of your friends had died. This had become the new normal in LGBT+ communities around the country.

In the mid 1980’s a young couple in their thirties named, Brian and Michael had gone to more funerals than what was normal for two men their age. In the space of half a decade, 20 of Michael’s friends died. Later on, Michael began to notice that Brian was rapidly losing weight, and a friend of the couple suggested that Brian see a doctor. “It’s probably nothing,” they thought, “it’s better to be safe.” Five months later, Brian was dead.

The Rise

By the end of 1983 the number of AIDS cases in the USA had risen to 3,064 – of this number, 1,292 had died. One year later, the numbers more than doubled with 7,699 AIDS cases and 3,665 AIDS deaths in the USA. By the end of 1990, it was estimated that around 1 million cases of AIDS and between 8-10 million people were living with HIV worldwide. Over the decade, AIDS rapidly spread and took many lives.

As cases of AIDS had risen rapidly, hospitals began to open AIDS wards around the country. By 1986, a third of the beds in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City were filled by AIDS patients. David was one such patient, a young gay man who had contracted AIDS and was in his last days. He had lost his sight but continually called out for his father and mother. A nurse in the hospital who had become fond of David tried to contact his parents. She called time after time without any answer until someone answered. When she finally got ahold of someone knowing it is David’s father, she says, “I know that you do not agree with your son but he is literally at the point of death and he is crying out for you.” There was a long pause on the phone.

Then the man on the other end answered – “We don’t have a son.” Setting down the phone and knowing David could not see, the nurse took David’s hand and said, – “Mom’s here.” Hearing her voice, David took his last breath.

The Response

While the rare infections at times were found among others, including drug users, female workers, and Haitians, the CDC associated the new disease with homosexuality because of the high incidences of infection among homosexual men leading the condition to be called GRID, or  gay-related immune deficiency before the name AIDS was officially adopted by the CDC in late 1982.

Anthony M. Petro, author of the book, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion, shares that the early connection between homosexuality and AIDS had lasting effects in the country – making AIDS more than a biological catastrophe. Instead it became a political, religious, and moral epidemic. The debates that followed regarding the distribution of condoms and the sinfulness of homosexuality, played into the rising culture wars – the rhetorical polarization of American public life through a division of cultural and political ideas.

Along with this as AIDS was spreading through the states, so was a renewed conservative movement which spawned a new anti-gay movement around the country. Conservative political/religious organizations like the Moral Majority began appearing around the country which were dedicated to mobilize conservative Christians as a political force. This movement and the connection of AIDS to homosexuality had a major effect on society’s response to the LGBT+ community.

Michael shared that he found little compassion in general after Brian died. People became very suspicious if they knew someone was gay. Michael shared, “I remember after Brian died I went to local pub and the publican in my hearing said to someone ‘don’t let anyone drink out of that glass’.” If you were gay, you were a potential risk to spread the disease in the eyes of many. For many though, AIDS was not just a health issue but a spiritual issue. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, said that “AIDS is God’s revenge for the sin of homosexuality” and even suggested that those carrying the AIDS antibodies should be quarantined.

In the 1980’s an HIV diagnosis was equivalent to a death sentence. Today many people, especially gay and bisexual men who are diagnosed with HIV (the virus that often ends in AIDS) and seek treatment are able to live with the virus, enjoying a normal life into old age. The stigma is considerably less here in the USA. The medical community has been leading the way on treating these men with care. The Church is a much bigger ship to turn around but there is movement in the right direction.

Thousands and thousands of LGBT+ people died from AIDS neglected by the long delayed response of the government and rejected by many in the Church as damned by God. In the midst of this, the political divide between the LGBT+ community and the Church began to grow wider and wider leading to decades of culture wars to come.  In our next article we will look at these wars that followed.

Check out the other posts in this series of LGBT+ History:

Josh Proctor