Like other Jewish historians and community members, I was bothered by the Trump Administration’s universalist Holocaust statement papering over the fact that, by and large, the Holocaust was about Jews. As a gay man who has written extensively about LGBT history, the episode reminded me of a similar bit of amnesia gay people have fostered about ourselves: that “AIDS is not a gay disease.”
The slogan was originally an understandable retort to haters who blamed us for our own suffering. But gays aren’t downtrodden anymore. For the sake of clear thinking about policy, respect for victims, and well-earned pride in gay history, it’s time we just say it: much as the Holocaust was a Jewish event, AIDS in the United States is a gay disease.
Of course straight people suffer and die from HIV-related illness, just as about 200,000 Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis. But “AIDS is not a gay disease” was a situational political strategy, not a scholarly consensus. It was an epidemiological and historical obfuscation designed to gain sympathy and funding for the illness in an era when gays were outsiders. Yet it remains in 2017, repeated almost as a mantra anytime someone “outrageously” links AIDS with homosexuality.
But of course AIDS is linked with homosexuality. Even today, gay men receive more than two-thirds of HIV diagnoses, and earlier in the epidemic that number was even higher. Gay men are maybe 2 percent of the American population, but 55 percent of Americans living with HIV. Men who have sex with men are more than 60 times more likely to contract HIV than those who don’t.
Like calling Tay-Sachs a Jewish disease, or sickle-cell anemia a black disease, calling AIDS a gay disease is a rhetorical shortcut, not finger-pointing.
Nonetheless, in the mid-to-late 1980s, AIDS activists began to highlight the minority of victims who contracted the illness through infected needles and heterosexual sex. Everyone was at risk for contracting HIV, they argued, and if the nation didn’t act, the epidemic would be soon spread rapidly within the “general population.”
That was epidemiological nonsense, we now know. HIV had spread so quickly among gay men because we had so many more sexual partners, and because anal sex facilitates transmission particularly effectively. A single instance of heterosexual intercourse with an infected person transmits the virus less than one time in a thousand. So straight people – whose unprotected sexual encounters are much more sporadic, and among whom monogamy is a more central value – are simply never going to see the disease spread exponentially as it did among gay men in the early 1980s.
But proclaiming “AIDS is not a gay disease” worked. Fundraising and government spending on research, prevention and care skyrocketed, and the illness was increasingly seen as an American problem, not a gay problem.
That progress came at a cost. Tens of millions of prevention and education dollars that could have helped teach vulnerable gay men how to play safe were diverted to educate Americans with much lower risk. And the disease began to slip off the LGBT radar screen
With falling transmission rates and rising life expectancy among its rich white male funders, Big Gay has for more than a decade diverted limited resources toward issues with wholesome connotations – think lesbians in wedding dresses.
HIV is a downer of an issue, involving weakness, sickness, and death; and concerning the poor, minorities, and (horrors!) sex. Even among LGBT health concerns, HIV has been shunted aside. Only a third of the articles at one major gay organization’s “Health & HIV/AIDS” Web page deals with HIV. Preposterously, several relate to abortion, which – while a liberal sacrament – isn’t all that urgent for men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women.
The gay community cannot be permanently enfeebled by those who blame our pain on our “perversion.” When gay leader Matt Foreman called AIDS a gay disease in 2008, narrow-minded groups seized the opportunity to renew their tired argument that homosexuality is a “dangerous lifestyle” (an odd analysis given the rarity of HIV transmission through lesbian sex). But in 2017, Americans are more likely to find comments like Foreman’s refreshing and those about diseased homosexuals off-putting.
Denying the gayness of AIDS has been doubly damaging, as it has diverted attention from today’s victims, who are largely people of color but just as gay; and rejected any discussion of gay white male victims to avoid a supposedly pernicious stereotype.
Thus the early history of the epidemic gets obscured, because most of that story’s heroes are gay white men. And those heroes are pretty fuckin’ awesome. In coalition with lesbians, people of color, and concerned heterosexuals those gay white men revolutionized the way Americans deal with illness.
Gays already faced constant discrimination, vilification, and scapegoating when news of a fatal illness in their midst led even well-meaning Americans to shun them. They were rejected by neighbors, co-workers, even their own doctors and parents. Some Americans blamed homosexuality for making their loved ones sick, locking same-sex partners out of health care decisions and even denying them a chance to say goodbye.
Those gay white men and their allies organized political pressure on government officials to devote funds to research and care. They created a broad spectrum of community organizations to succor the afflicted. They became experts at epidemiology and pharmacology so they could advocate on their own behalf, shaking up a stodgy drug-approval system to give dying men hope. They pioneered a style of in-your-face activism that demanded Americans end their deadly silence. And they devoted their already abundant talents in arts as diverse as musical theater, graffiti and quilt-making to express agony, perseverance, and hope in the face of an unprecedented plague.
The gay community’s bravery and endurance in a time of monumental stress is unsurpassed in the 20th century. It is a largely untold tale that deserves a place of honor right alongside the African-American freedom struggle, showing the best of what Americans can be.
AIDS is not a gay disease?
David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at [email protected].