Queer History: World AIDS Day

Article by Amelia A. J. Foy

The 1st of December 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day. AIDS refers to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS and HIV are often used interchangeably, but AIDS is actually a syndrome that occurs through HIV (aka is HIV Stage 3). HIV itself stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Days like World AIDS Day are so important because of the history behind it. The AIDS Crisis of the 80s led to the deaths of thousands of gay and bisexual men, amongst other demographics such as drug users and African women. The reason it was allowed to kill so many people is because of the inaction of the government. The reason the government was so inactive was because of the demographics dying.

For a long time, AIDS was called a “gay cancer”. Queer men were branded as dangerous and somehow “deserving” of this disease, as if by being gay they signed up for it. You had people, nurses and doctors, unwilling to be in the same room as you in case they caught it. Queer people only really had each other, and we were dying.

HIV is a disease transmitted through bodily fluids, for example blood-to-blood contact or sexual intercourse - which only further stigmatised queer men once this emerged. Queer people finally had our sexual liberation, our love was decriminalised, and then you were told you can’t have sex, you can’t be with other men, because you will die.

And instead of stopping the epidemic from the beginning, only when so many people were dying that it was impossible to ignore was when the government took action. When AIDS activists were carrying their lovers’ bodies through the streets up to the White House. And still, Margaret Thatcher’s government refused to mention gay sex in awareness campaigns (if you could call making the population scared of queer people “awareness”) - under Section 28, you couldn’t talk about it. Even if discussing gay sex and contraception could save lives.

Today is, really, two-fold. Firstly, it’s about awareness. It’s letting people know what AIDS and HIV+ are, how to check for them, and where to go. It’s letting the world know that times have changed and you can live full, happy, fulfilling lives now with HIV or AIDS, thanks to decades of research. But it is also a day of mourning. It’s a day of remembrance and honouring all the queer people we have lost. Countless untold stories. Countless sons, lovers, friends, heroes, pioneers. It’s a day of realising how many people died before the government would listen. Remembering that the 80’s AIDS Crisis was as much a genocide as it was a medical epidemic.

To learn more about it, here are some resources:

ACT UP - The original organisation fighting back against AIDS and AIDS-related stigma. Websites for different areas, e.g. ACT UP New York, ACT UP London.

The Reagan Administration’s Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis - A video compiling tape recordings of a journalist voicing to the White House the AIDS Crisis, from when there was just a couple hundred cases up to thousands of deaths. They laughed at it.
The Face Of AIDS: The Story Behind Therese Frare's Photo - A video explaining the stories behind several photographs taking of people with AIDS and their lovers.

David Warjnarowicz - Queer activist and artist whose work centred on queer rights and AIDS awareness. He died of AIDS-related illnesses.

[Image description: David from the back, his jacket reading: IF I DIE OF AIDS - FORGET BURIAL - JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.]

Keith Haring - Gay activist and artist. He died of AIDS-related illnesses.

[Image description: Drawing of 3 yellow figures in pop art style, text reading: IGNORANCE = FEAR, SILENCE = DEATH, FIGHT AIDS ACT UP]

Angels In America - Play and TV mini-series set during the AIDS Crisis, centring on the lives of different people as they navigate this culture in America.
[Image description: Still from the film of Prior and Louis in bed.]

Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves / Torka aldrig tÃ¥rar utan handskar - Swedish mini-series showing how the AIDS Crisis played out in Stockholm.
[Image description: Still from the film of multiple queer men against blossom background.]
Pride - Film exploring the work of Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners, set in the AIDS Crisis in the UK under Margaret Thatcher and exploring how homophobia in the media impacted their work.
[Image description: Still from the film of the LGSMiners marching.]

RENT - Musical (with a film adaptation) set during the AIDS Crisis exploring how lower class queer people and drug users handled the epidemic.
[Image description: Still from the film of the friend group partying.]

The Normal Heart - Play (with film adaptation) exploring how a gay rights, AIDS-awareness group navigated the American government completely ignoring their efforts, alongside personal loss.

[Image description: Still from the film of Mark Ruffalo's character on stage.]