A Historian Discovers that Students Today Don't Know that AIDS Originally Was Regarded as a "Gay Disease"

tags: gay history, Dartmouth College, unknown author



[T]his past fall, while teaching an undergraduate course called"Plagues and Politics: The Impact of AIDS on US Culture" at Dartmouth College, I was shocked — profoundly shocked — by the fact that only three of the 34 students in the class had any idea that AIDS was once widely regarded as a gay-male disease. As someone who lived through the AIDS epidemic, who has lost lovers and friends too numerous to count, I was literally stunned: how could this be?

As much as I had prepared for this class, it never occurred to me that the students would not share one of my own basic assumptions about AIDS, not to mention about US history. But in matters both large and small, the students had almost no concept of the relationship between AIDS and gay men. They had no idea that a homophobic stigma was once attached to AIDS. They had no idea that mainstream magazines, such as New York , routinely referred to AIDS as"the gay plague." They had no idea that William F. Buckley Jr., that most respected of moderate conservatives, in a March 18, 1986, New York Times op-ed piece called for mandatory HIV testing of gay men and for those who were HIV-positive to have this information forcibly tattooed on their buttocks. They had no idea that the religious right (as well as high-ranking officials in the Reagan administration, such as chief domestic-policy adviser Gary Bauer and Secretary of Education William Bennett, and politicians, such as US Representative William Dannemeyer of California and Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina) did its best not only to blame gay men for the growing epidemic, but to vigorously, and successfully, fight to impede government funding for research and AIDS education. But most important, they had no idea of the catastrophic effect AIDS had on the gay-male community in the United States, nor of the amazing and resilient fight the community waged against these onslaughts while dealing with massive death and unbroken mourning.

Maybe, as a friend pointed out, such ignorance of AIDS's early years is a good thing, a sign of positive social change. After all, from the beginning of the epidemic in 1981, gay activists had insisted that AIDS was not a"gay disease" even as they were forced to fight tooth and nail for gay men affected by AIDS who were being denied basic services because of social and institutionalized homophobia."De-gaying" of AIDS has always been tricky because, while AIDS has never been a"gay disease" in a clinical sense, for the epidemic's first decade it was primarily gay men, and men who had sex with other men, who were affected by it. For those of us who lived through that horrifying period between the early '80s and the early '90s, de-gaying the disease, while welcome, would strip us of a momentous part of our history. Now that I was standing before a group of people for whom the disease had been, in fact, de-gayed, I was also standing face to face with my own ambivalence.


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