1980’s • Early AIDS Activism

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Early AIDS Activism


A historical narrative of social progress becomes hollow if it fails to register also setbacks and hard times. After a decade of sexual liberation, the LGBTI+ community received its worst hit in the past fifty years. In the early 1980’s, gay and bisexual men in especially large American cities started dying inexplicably. In due course, scientists identified a virus (HIV) that was predominantly transmitted through sex. The virus attacked the immune system, which in nearly all cases led to a spectrum of conditions grouped under the name of AIDS. In the early years, most persons who contracted HIV effectively died, at first quickly, then in a more prolonged process.

Because the deaths afflicted especially the gay community and resulted from sexual intercourse, political leaders were extremely slow to respond. The US President Ronald Reagan and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were staunch conservatives who preferred either silence or homophobic stigmatization. As a result, the LGBTI+ community had to come together to organize basic health care, raise awareness, demand action from doctors, pharmaceutical companies and politicians, and develop sexual health campaigns. Militant organizations were launched, with the help of a good many lesbian activists (the queer movements emerged in large part out of this episode). The sense of crisis was overwhelming until new medical treatment in the mid-1990’s made survival more realistic. By then, however, HIV had become a global pandemic that demanded increasing attention to other continents as well as to women and people of color.

Despite recent progress, the fight is long from over and some 35 million people are estimated to have died of AIDS. Even in Western LGBTI+ communities, stigma still attaches to a seropositive status and there has been a gradual amnesia within the LGBTI+ movement about the darkest years of the AIDS crisis.

AIDS SIDA Cover of Time Magazine (1987) ⓒ Fonds Suzan Daniel
Cover of Time Magazine (1987) ⓒ Fonds Suzan Daniel

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