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There was a time in the early days of the epidemic when HIV/AIDS was synonymous with gay. It entered the U.S. through the gay male community and quickly spread, wiping out tens of thousands of young men in the prime of their lives.
The general population was primarily indifferent. Many rationalized that HIV/AIDS was limited to the gay community, believing that gay men had unique sexual practices. HIV/AIDS activists were ignored, even as they screamed at the top of their lungs that the epidemic was killing gay men in droves and spreading beyond the gay community. Intravenous drug users started presenting with HIV/AIDS, confirming early suspicions that the virus could be transmitted through blood. And while early signs of this pandemic surfaced in 1981, then President of the U.S. Ronald Reagan, did not publicly mention this killer disease for five more years.
BTL staff were at a community education forum in the early 1990s. The presenter spelled out the risks to gay men and intravenous drug users, and implored people to try to stop it. One woman stood up and said, “Who cares? It’s OK with me if the druggies and homos die off.”
It’s that indifference and painful bigotry to the plight of people with HIV/AIDS that led us to where we are today. The virus has spread across the world. Millions have died and millions more will die. Infections could have been greatly reduced in the 1980s with an aggressive public health policy. But Reagan-era politicians, conservative religious leaders and right-wing demagogues convinced people that those who were dying were not worth saving. Through silence mostly and aggressive anti-gay campaigns, people with AIDS were stigmatized and feared, not loved and cared for.
As the epidemic turns 30 years old, the virus, which doesn’t discriminate at all, continues to spread among those who are either not inclined or who are unable to protect themselves; young gay men who missed the horror of the early years, black men and women and the chronically poor. It’s long past time that we not judge the infected, that we care for those who are sick, and that we put away the barriers to education that keep people from protecting themselves, both before and after infection.
The LGBT community will always have to deal with AIDS, unless and until a cure and vaccine is discovered. Although new infection rates among gay men are leveling off, gay men remain the largest category of infected people. It remains up to us to be at the front of the effort to eradicate HIV/AIDS.
The theme of this year’s worldwide events is “Act Aware,” emphasizing the role of individuals in stopping the spread of HIV and fighting prejudice against its victims. So this World AIDS Day, remember those who are gone and mourn them. Then get up and show real concern for the living and support, volunteer and become involved in an AIDS agency near you. In this issue we list lots of World AIDS Day events you can attend and learn more about getting involved. It is up to all of us, to both fight the epidemic and model how to care about stemming the epidemic and caring for people with AIDS.