By: B.A. Whitmore
On Wednesday, July 17, 2019 an AIDS Vigil took place in Highland Park’s AIDS Memorial Garden. The vigil was sponsored by the Victory Alliance; a group representing the HIV/AIDS vaccine trials network at the University of Rochester. To those who participated and attended the vigil, I want to sincerely thank you. The vigil was a means to remember those who have died of AIDS as well to make evident the research still needed and being done at the University and other research facilities around the world. Even though this epidemic has been positively attacked over the decades, it is still a scourge in the U. S. and other countries. I write this to encourage and motivate the LGBTQ community into caring more about this terrible time that impacted our community. We celebrate “gay liberation” every year in the remembrance of Stonewall, but seemingly do little to honor those lives that were lost, and have less desire to find a cure or vaccine. Research and treatments sometimes seem to make the AIDS problem, that the LGBTQ community experienced, just a footnote in our history.
Some facts and history that note the impact that AIDS produced:
● 1981: AIDS first diagnosed and given a name
● During the years of 1981 and 1998 there were over 334 thousands deaths due to AIDS
● Peak of the epidemic was between 1987 and 1996
● 1981 saw the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City, because over 40% of
all AIDS cases were in New York City
● 1985: personalities of Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe
and the death of Rock Hudson brought the need for more compassion and AIDS research
● 1987: The formation of ACT-UP activist group(s)
● 1987: the Ryan White Health Care Act was passed by Congress to provide funding and to try
and end discrimination because of AIDS
● 1987: AZT (the only medication approved) cost between 7 – 10 thousand dollars per year
● In 1995: 1 in 9 gay men was diagnosed with HIV; 1 in 15 gay men had died of AIDS (between the
ages of 20 – 45)
● Fast forward to 1995, the CDC estimates that 67% of all new HIV infections are in the gay and bi-
● In Rochester, by 1995 almost 200 people had died of AIDS
When AIDS became apparent in the gay community, gays were jolted by fear, they were shunned, felt great loss, and they were despised and rejected. People with AIDS lost their jobs, rejected by families and friends. Many became homeless, had no medical coverage. There was a true lack of compassion. Even religious leaders called AIDS “God’s punishment”. Confusion and even panic was ever so present.
Eventually, AIDS began to galvanize gay men and women into being more active and visible. It forced the gay community to interact with “the system”.
“AIDS crisis was a catalyst that helped to spur on the modern day movement for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. AIDS politicized the gay community. It created the organizations that became very powerful and political savvy. And in the process ‘it changed the way society looks at gay people’”
David Barr, GLSEN.org
With time people in the medical community began to step up and realize the effect that AIDS was causing. Legal professionals began to have an impact. Our lesbian community rallied in support of their gay male friends. Many in the gay community became nurses, did outreach and became advocates for those who were sick and dying. As a result and determination of the gay community, gays came out of the marginalized shadows and were treated more normally.
“HIV has been devastating but it also created an entrance for LGBTQ work to be done”
Christine Stegling, Exec Dir. ITPC
Being 30+ years into the epidemic we find a gay community, that in some ways, are complacent to their HIV past. There are still new infections (both in the U.S. and worldwide). As well many gays who happened to survive after being diagnosed are now older and suffer from the long term effects of the disease and medications. Long term survivors suffer from mental health issues, treatment fatigue, depression, isolation, lack of social support, some cognitive problems and many have physical appearance changes. With new medications and testing come HIV challenges to even young people. HIV seems distant and less devastating. Many have never known someone with AIDS, have had a friend or partner die of AIDS; let alone see what a person experiences when actually dying of AIDS.
“HIV…..gave us a sort of intensity and drive that the younger generation cannot know because they are lucky enough they have escaped it”
Andrew Sullivan, activist-writer
As a community we can do more. So..yes celebrate Stonewall and be proud. But also do more to celebrate those we lost and be more concerned of the ongoing research which is still so needed. Just once in a while put yourself in the shoes of our gay brothers and sisters who faced this crisis. Ask yourself this question (as they had to):
“If you could take a test that would tell you if you would be alive in two years, would you take it?”
Mark King, L.A. activist, 1980’s
As the gay history book is written, we must make sure that the real impact that AIDS presented to the gay community not be relegated to a simple anecdote but should be a deserved and full chapter.
Thank you to all of the community for your thoughts and concerns.