HIV and The Gay Community

With the International AIDS Conference(AIDS2012) underway in Washington DC, I started to reflect on the history of HIV/AIDS and the destructive relationship it has had with the gay community for the past 30 plus years and I wondered whether much has changed from then to now.

When the disease first made it’s appearance in North America in the early 1980’s, doctors weren’t sure what to make of it.The San Francisco Chronicle reports “a mysterious outbreak of a sometimes fatal pneumonia among gay men has occurred in San Francisco and in several other major cities.” The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes an alarming rate of a rare cancer (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) in otherwise healthy gay men.

At the time the disease only seemed to affect young gay men.  Since this new disease had no official name the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  made reference to it by associating it with the diseases that were occurring, for example lymphadenopathy (swollen glands). Outside of the CDC, the disease was widely referred to as a “gay cancer” or “GRID”- Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Can you imagine the pandemonium that followed? “It is frightening because no one knows what’s causing it, said a 28-year old law student who went to the St. Mark’s Clinic in Greenwich Village last week complaining of swollen glands, thought to be one early symptom of the disease. Every week a new theory comes out about how you’re going to spread it.”The New York Times

By 1982 the first AIDS Service Organizations started popping up in response to the crisis- like The Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York and The San Francisco AIDS Foundation in California. Being the hardest hit community, as much support as possible was needed.  By the end of the 1980’s approximately 107,000 cases of AIDS had been diagnosed in the United States alone and over 62,000 deaths recorded.

Fast track to 2012, there have been many advancements in the fight against HIV/AIDS throughout the years. People with the disease are now living longer healthier lives thanks the introduction of Antiretroviral drugs/medicine. But the shame and stigma associated with the disease has not changed much from what it was back in the 80’s. More saddening is that within the gay community itself, we crucify those who have the disease. This could be due partly to ignorance or a lack of knowledge but in this day and age when information is at our finger tips, how can we still be so stubborn?

I believe that our ignorance is fueled partly by the fact that some folks think that HIV/AIDS is no longer an issue. They couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, it’s so much of an issue that the law of Canada states that you must disclose your HIV status to another person before engaging in behaviors that pose a significant risk of HIV transmission. Failure to do so results in convictions of serious criminal offenses, including aggravated sexual assault, and significant prison sentences. So yeah, it’s still a big deal.

Elton John said it best: “Everyone deserves compassion. Everyone deserves dignity. Everyone, everyone, everyone deserves love. Why am I telling you this? Because the AIDS disease is caused by a virus, but the AIDS epidemic is not. The AIDS epidemic is fueled by stigma, violence and indifference.”

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