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AIDS Activism  
 
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In the United States, glbtq people have played an integral and often leading role in AIDS activism. They were among the first groups affected by the disease, and their collective response has directly impacted the course of the epidemic and greatly influenced AIDS treatment and advocacy.

In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that five young gay men in Los Angeles had been diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). A few weeks later, it reported that another 26 gay men in New York City and San Francisco had been diagnosed with a rare cancer, Kaposi's sarcoma (KS). Although unknown at the time, these rare diseases signaled the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

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By the end of 1981, roughly 200 gay men showed signs of having KS or PCP. The correlation between the sexual orientation of the patients and the disease became so striking that it soon became known as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).

The Role of the Gay Press

Although it quickly became apparent that other groups were also susceptible to this disease, the association between gay culture and AIDS remained strong, prompting heated debates in the gay press. Writers for newspapers such as Gay Community News in Boston and the New York Native wrote fervently about the causes and implications of the new disease. They were the first voices of a new activism that would consume the gay community and its resources for much of the next decade.

Although not always based on clear scientific evidence, the conflicting arguments that gay writers presented did much to raise awareness of the disease in the gay community. Protective of the accomplishments of gay liberation, some writers, such as Michael Bronski, lamented the demonizing of gay male sexual culture. Skeptical that the urban gay lifestyle, which its detractors characterized in terms of recreational drug usage, multiple sex partners, and sexually transmitted diseases, was responsible for the destruction of gay men's immune systems, Bronski pushed for a more precise scientific explanation.

Other writers for the gay press, such as Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, less convinced that a virus caused AIDS, viewed the sexual and social excesses of the 1970s as responsible for the disease. In an article for the New York Native, they declared war on promiscuity and cautioned gay men to take responsibility for their sexual lives.

Although confusing and contradictory, the initial lack of consensus among gay writers and activists on the cause of AIDS prompted many to challenge each other, community leaders, and the medical establishment. The chaos forced gay men and their communities to press for more information and take responsibility for educating themselves. According to Stephen Epstein, "[T]he watchword was self-reliance." Gay men had to become their own experts: "ultimately, that was the only reasonable hope gay people might have of surviving."

Gay Community Response

As many chroniclers of the early AIDS epidemic have noted, in contrast to the other groups initially impacted by the epidemic--Haitians, hemophiliacs, IV drug users--the gay community responded most visibly and most quickly to the new disease. This organized response was due in large part to the legacy of gay liberation, for the social and political institutions that gay men and lesbians had created in the previous decade allowed them to mobilize quickly in the face of this new threat.

The threat was social as well as medical. At a time when the cause of AIDS and its method of transmission remained uncertain, people suffering from the disease were subject to cruel mistreatment and discrimination. Even healthy members of at-risk groups experienced discrimination and stigmatization.

Moreover, the association of the disease with homosexuality helped fuel anti-gay sentiment. Several public officials called for coercive public health policies, including mandatory HIV testing and quarantines. In the eyes of the general public, gay men were seen less as victims of a new disease than as vectors of an infection that endangered the general population. Gay men and drug users were often contrasted with the "innocent" victims of the disease, hemophiliacs and others infected through blood transfusions and children infected by their mothers.

The medical and the social were interrelated, for in the opinion of many observers, one reason the epidemic spread so quickly and penetrated so deeply into the gay community was the hostility and indifference of the government and the larger society to the lives of homosexuals and drug users. Hence the response to AIDS had to be multifaceted: medical, social, and political.

In 1982, gay male and lesbian activists formed the first two AIDS service organizations (ASOs): the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City and the Kaposi's Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation in San Francisco, which two years later became the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

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