2020 - 2021 Modern Volume 14

How the Discovery of a Treatment for AIDS helped turn the tide for the LGBT+ community

By Arran Bostock

In light of the confusing and unpredictable times we find ourselves in, it seems appropriate to look back at an epidemic which primarily affected the LGBT+ community – a societal group who endured hardships through the oppressive discriminatory laws and attitudes embedded in the twentieth century. The AIDS/HIV epidemic remains one of the most significant health crises in history, with the discovery of the first treatment method in 1987 being regarded by many as a significant move forward for not only the scientific community but also the LGBT+ community, notably homosexual males. Such discovery provides us with a sense of hope not solely in regard to resolving the coronavirus pandemic, but also to the fact that there is potential for marginalised groups in society to be alleviated from their suffering.

Acquired immune-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was first identified in California in 1981 after a handful of young and healthy homosexual males were diagnosed with a rare form of lung pneumonia. By the end of the year, 270 known cases of the disease among homosexual men had been reported, of which 121 had died. Similar clusters were quick to appear on the east coast of the United States in New York. Following these outbreaks prestigious newspapers, such as The New York Times, began calling the disease ‘GRID’ (gay-related immune deficiency) which consequently fuelled the idea that it only affected homosexual men.

In Britain, the sixties had set the stage for a new and upcoming generation to embrace diversity and liberalism, with the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 partially freeing gay individuals from the restraints which had hitherto robbed them of their authenticity. It appeared as though members of the LGBT+ community were making up for the time they had been deprived of as promiscuity became increasingly common. Thus, the spread of AIDS was rapid. Indeed, this was another unfortunate fact to write into the narrative of LGBT+ history, especially because it was intensified by right-wingers who used the opportunity to claim that AIDS was a punishment for an ‘unnatural’ lifestyle. As Andrew Marr contends, the arrival of the disease ‘came at a particularly cruel time’ because instead of giving the LGBT+ community the chance for self-expression in what was becoming a more tolerant society, it simply stigmatised them further.

In the present, when we think about AIDS, our minds do not automatically associate the disease with gay men. Although we can acknowledge that the association remains, great improvements have been made since 1987. The destigmatising of AIDS owes credit to azidothymidine, the treatment which gave HIV positive individuals the possibility of living a long and happy life. Moreover, charity groups such as The Terrence Higgins Trust – founded after one of Britain’s first AIDS victims, Terry Higgins, died in July 1982 – have brought awareness to the transmission of HIV whilst working alongside community projects to ensure the voices of those living with the illness are heard.

Through increased research and raised awareness, health professionals have learnt that AIDS affects intravenous drug users and heterosexual individuals too, therefore giving homosexual men a break from the scrutinising spotlight. What is important to note here is that AIDS was beginning to break away from its association as the ‘gay plague’; it became a more general health concern around the world.

Whilst it can be argued that the plethora of reported AIDS cases amongst homosexual men was the catalyst for the stigma, it is also fair to assert that the stigma was the reason sufferers were less likely to open up or educate themselves on the issue. The latter is plausible given the lack of security the LGBT+ community face, with self-stigma encouraging individuals to adopt behaviours which put them at risk of becoming infected, for example sex work. This issue of causality became less serious once a treatment was discovered because LGBT+ individuals broke their silence on what they had been made to believe was a sinful disease. Hence, the awareness and understanding of AIDS was fostered in everyday conversation.

Alongside scientific treatments, political developments in Britain played a fundamental role in reducing the stigma surrounding AIDS and the LGBT+ community. Initially, controversy arose when Princess Diana famously shook the hand of a man with the illness after she opened the first AIDS unit at Middlesex hospital in 1987. However, this was later deemed as an act of compassion and a powerful way of normalising the illness, which in turn challenged the public perception that AIDS was a plague. In the preceding year, Conservative health secretary Norman Fowler had created a national health campaign, publishing leaflets to every household titled ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’. Fowler’s rejection of church groups and other MP’s advice to promote abstinence for men ‘choosing’ a homosexual lifestyle was a powerful way to show his support for the LGBT+ community. These steps helped advance the reduction of stigma and were furthered when a treatment was discovered. At last it seemed as though LGBT+ individuals had genuine allies who used their authoritative positions to reduce the stigma.

History often places emphasis on catastrophic events and periods in the past where great suffering occurred as a result of political or social oppression. This is understandable considering the purpose of history is to learn and adapt from the mistakes of the past. Whilst educating ourselves on these events is important, it is also useful to appreciate the stories in history which celebrate achievements and success, thereby renewing the sense of hope. This is apt considering the uncertainty of the climate we find ourselves in.  Discovering a treatment for AIDS was such a monumental step forward for the LGBT+ community, showing that there is hope for societal groups who have undergone hardships to be free of discrimination. Over thirty-five million people live with AIDS, most of whom have access to treatment which ensures they lead a healthy life. Even though the LGBT+ community are still faced with challenges – as most minority groups are – treatment for AIDS has meant they are long detached from the notion that the illness discriminated against them because of their sexual orientation, which in turn has created a greater sense of equality between the community and the wider population.