As gay and bisexual men were dropping dead in the mid-1980s, political strategists realized they had to make a choice. Acknowledge that the epidemic was disproportionately impacting gay and bisexual men — a despised minority in the U.S. — or reposition the epidemic as a threat to every American.
The political choice was to re-cast the threat of the epidemic. By changing the discussion about HIV from what gay and bisexual men were doing sexually to the risk of “innocent” victims — like Ryan White, Kimberly Bergalis, and others (all of whom were white and heterosexual) — Congress was unable to ignore the crisis anymore. They could no longer paint the epidemic as the result of the exotic lives of gay and bisexual men.
In 1990, the political calculation paid off with Congress passing the Ryan White CARE Act and unleashing a flood of federal dollars to AIDS service organizations, most of them created by and for gay and bisexual men. The de-gaying was complete.
When the right wing claims HIV was a gay disease, gay leaders recoiled in rage. HIV, they said, was everyone’s problem. In a big picture snapshot that is accurate. But in the U.S. it’s a lie. The virus is safely encamped in the bodies of men who have sex with other men (a term of epidemiology coined by scientists, which makes trans women — deeply affected by HIV — invisible in the epidemic).
Author John-Manuel Androite says that in the mid-'80s a national coalition called National Organizations Responding to AIDS (NORA) made a decision — a deliberate decision — that echoes even today in how the U.S. addresses HIV.
“What they did was they framed the discussion about HIV for lawmakers in terms of public health; as a public health crisis, not a gay community crisis per se,” Andriote says. “What they did, very intentionally, was to emphasize the impact of HIV on non-gay people, specifically women and children.”
Androite authored the book Victor Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay America, which tracks the political impact of the epidemic on the LGBT rights movement.
“Unfortunately, the unexpected impact or effect of that de-gaying strategy was that the federal government was very happy to pay attention and focus resources on women and kids,” he says. “But the attitude was still that gay men could sort of fend for themselves.”
At that point, he says, the national LGBT organizations which participated in the NORA coalition, felt their part in addressing the epidemic was over, and could “move on to issues that affect the rest of us, marriage equality in particular, and that just dominated the political discourse for quite some time. Until today I would say.”
This happened at time when two-thirds of people living with HIV in the U.S. were gay or bisexual men; just as it is today, he points out.
Listen to the full interview with Androite below before you continue to next page: