AIDS / HIV
For many people, the outbreak of AIDS in the Western world brought to an end the ‘Age of Promiscuity.’ The 1960s and 1970s broke down many barriers, as different sections of society sought to assert their rights. There was a greater sense of liberty, especially within the LGBT community that was no longer prepared to hide in the shadows. Sexual freedom meant there were more opportunities to have sex with other people on a casual basis and there was evidently a sense of complacency. Few people considered the potential consequences of their actions. It was only when AIDS was identified as a growing problem that members of the gay community were forced to stop and think about the choices they made.
AIDS didn’t only affect the gay community, but it has always been more prevalent amongst gay men than amongst the population at large. It was in 1981 that the gay community in America was alerted to the fact that there was a serious disease in their midst. In June of that year a report relating to HIV was published by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. This was followed up a month later by a report which suggested that an infectious disease with symptoms associated with pneumonia and cancer was destroying the immune system of infected gay men. This prompted an organisation known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis to be formed.
The aim was to prevent the disease spreading and to look after those who were infected by the disease. It was felt that wider society didn’t particularly care about those who were affected and that someone had to provide support. Unfortunately, not much was known about what caused the disease, how it was transmitted, or how it could be treated, which obviously made it very difficult for such a small, poorly-funded organisation to have much of an impact. Researchers including Dr Alvin Friedman-Kien had to rely on private hand-outs, as the government paid little attention to the growing crisis. It was perceived to be a disease which only affected gay individuals and drug users, so that it was only when it started to have an impact on other sections of society that those with influence sat up and took notice.
There was a great deal of stigma associated with having HIV/AIDS due to people’s ignorance. People were afraid they could contract the disease through touch alone or through saliva or tears. It is therefore not surprising that individuals who had the condition felt isolated. The spread of AIDS was not confined to the United States, as AIDS became an issue in Europe and beyond. In 1982, Terry Higgins, who lived in London, was at a gay bar, Heaven, when he collapsed and taken to St Thomas’ Hospital. He discharged himself, but later collapsed again and died.
Terry Higgins was quickly identified as being one of the first people in Britain to die from an AIDS-related illness and was one of four Londoners to have died from the disease. The media started to take an interest in the condition, with The Sunday Times publishing an article that had the headline, ‘Mystery New Killer Disease,’ in September 1982 and Capital Gay publishing an article with the headline, ‘US Disease Hits London,’ in November of the same year. It was in 1983 that the general public was really made aware of the disease after the Horizon documentary, ‘Killer in the Village,’ was broadcast in April.
In the documentary, theories about what caused AIDS were explored and the question that was left hanging in the air was ‘Do we already have the hidden seeds of an epidemic here?’ Unsurprisingly, a lot of people were scared by what they had seen, especially as the documentary raised more questions than it answered. There was still a lack of knowledge concerning what the disease was and how it was spread, as well as a lack of support for those suffering from the disease. However, heightened public awareness of AIDS did manage to pave the way for organisations, such as the Terence Higgins Trust, to grow, and made sure that the issue couldn’t just be swept under the carpet.