Generation X, my generation, grew up in a world where gay men were gripped by the fear of AIDS. Contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was a death sentence. When the AIDS epidemic took hold in the U.S., it surged through communities that the straight world preferred not to see. HIV/AIDS has had a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly gay and bisexual men, other men who have sex with men, and racial and ethnic minorities. The AIDS epidemic was ignored by the Reagan administration for much of the 1980s even as the spread of the virus grew exponentially. By the fall of 1981, more than 100 AIDS cases had been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By February 1983, the first 1,000 cases had been reported. The second 1,000 were reported in the next six months, and the third 1,000 before the end of the year.
By the end of 1984, AIDS had ravaged the United States for at least three years affecting approximately 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500. It is possible AIDS had been present and unseen for years before that. Scientists had identified the cause of HIV/AIDS, and the CDC had identified all its major transmission routes. Yet, US leaders mainly remained silent and unresponsive to the health emergency. It wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that President Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS. But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic. By the late 1980s, cases had been reported from every state. It took eight years (until August 1989) for the first 100,000 cases to be reported; the second 100,000 were reported in just two years (by November 1991). The half-million total was passed in October of 1995. The cumulative total of cases through December 2001 was 816,149, of whom 666,026 (81.6%) were men, 141,048 (17.3%) were women, and 9,074 (1.1%) were children under age 13.
The stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS and gay men were overwhelming. Public response was negative in the early years of the epidemic. In 1983, a doctor in New York was threatened with eviction leading to the first AIDS discrimination lawsuit. Bathhouses across the country closed due to high-risk sexual activity. Some schools barred children with HIV from attending. When Congress held its first hearing on AIDS in 1982, only a single reporter showed up. In a House floor speech, Representative Bill Dannemeyer of California read graphic descriptions of homosexual sex acts. The actions and words of the powerful politician had a stifling effect on other Republicans inclined to help deal with the epidemic. Conservative politicians pushed for government registration of AIDS patients. In 1987, the United States placed a travel ban on visitors and immigrants with HIV. President Obama lifted this ban in 2010.
In early 1985, the CDC finally developed the nation’s first AIDS prevention plan spearheaded by epidemiologist, Dr. Donald Francis. Washington leaders ultimately rejected it on February 4, 1985. Dr. Francis later recounted in an article in the Journal of Public Health Policy that Dr. John Bennett, the CDC’s central coordinator for AIDS and the AIDS Task Force chairman, told him: “Don, they rejected the plan. They said, ‘Look pretty and do as little as you can.'” On September 17, 1985, President Reagan finally, publicly mentioned AIDS when responding to a reporter’s question. He called it a “top priority” and defended his administration’s response and research funding. On October 2, Congress allocated nearly $190 million for AIDS research—$70 million more than the administration’s request. That same day, actor Rock Hudson, Reagan’s close personal friend, died from AIDS dragging the disease into the public’s eye.
In 1986, reports from the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Science and Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, advocated for a coordinated response to AIDS. Under pressure, Reagan appointed a commission to investigate the epidemic. Towards the end of 1987, the country began taking steps to raise AIDS awareness by sponsoring AIDS Awareness Month, launching the “America Responds to AIDS” advertising campaign, and mailing the Surgeon General’s findings to every American household. Reagan’s response to AIDS should sound familiar. Our former, twice-impeached president used a similar tactic during the COVID pandemic. Take, for example, the following early response of the Reagan administration. During an October 1982 White House press briefing, Conservative journalist Lester Kinsolving questioned Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s press secretary, about the president’s reaction to AIDS which was then affecting some 600 people. When Kinsolving mentioned the disease was known as the “gay plague,” the press pool erupted in laughter. Rather than providing a substantive answer, Speakes said, “I don’t have it,” sparking more laughter. He then proceeded to question Kinsolving multiple times about whether he had AIDS.
It became a joke for the Religious Right. When religious people found out you were gay, you often got the response, “I hope you die of AIDS” or “You’ll die of AIDS soon enough.” Families rejected their gay sons, and even more so if they had AIDS. The church of a cousin of mine who was gay and died of AIDS, refused to allow his funeral at the church or to allow him burial in the cemetery. The family never admitted he died of AIDS. But I knew. My aunt (it was her stepson) had told my mother the name of his doctor. He was the only doctor in Montgomery who would see AIDS patients. Being gay was not only the worst thing you could be, but many like me were raised to believe all gay people died of AIDS. It scared me into the closet for years.
Things slowly began to change as antiviral medications advanced, and AIDS was no longer a death sentence. In 1988, the World Health Organization organized the first World AIDS Day to raise awareness of the spreading pandemic. In May 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Romer v. Evans that Colorado’s 2nd amendment denying gays and lesbians protections against discrimination was unconstitutional. In April 2000, Vermont became the first state in the US to legalize civil unions and registered partnerships between same-sex couples. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws in the U.S. were unconstitutional. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. The state supreme court found the prohibition of gay marriage unconstitutional because it denied the dignity and equality of all individuals. In the following six years, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, and Washington D.C. followed suit.
This three-part series of posts is not meant to be an exhaustive look at the problems faced by generations of LGBTQ+ individuals. This second part largely focuses on the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Generation X, but the AIDS crisis affected all living generations of LGBTQ+ individuals.