A Brief History of the Disease
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body's immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). There is currently no effective cure. Once people get HIV, they have it for life, and AIDS is the most severe phase of HIV infection. But with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. People with HIV who get effective HIV treatment can live long, healthy lives and protect their partners. In light of successful human trials of an HIV vaccine, it is important to reflect on the history of the disease and the tireless efforts of LGBTQ+ activists in fighting the stigma surrounding it, particularly in societies which are sadly characterised by homophobia. Historically, HIV and AIDS have disproportionately affected men who have sex with men. In the 1980s, when cases of AIDS began to rise exponentially, same-sex sexual activity was forbidden in most regions, including the USA and much of Europe. This led to a profound lack of research on the disease which was dubbed as a “gay plague”. An approximate 36 million people have tragically died since the epidemic peaked and with 71 countries around the globe still criminalising homosexuality, the stigma around AIDS has regrettably not diminished. But there is hope.
A Call for Action
Through the persistent efforts of the LGBTQ+ community, progress has been made and it is important to celebrate these contributions which have perhaps historically been silenced. Famously, ACT UP, the New York turned International grassroot political group which both conducted and called for direct action in response to the AIDS crisis, were at the forefront of activism. They campaigned for broader gay rights issues and recognition of social disparity for members of the community. This was especially relevant considering that these circumstances only exacerbated the crisis, with many governments disregarding the severity of the disease due to its perceived affiliation with the gay community. Recent activity from the group includes ACT UP London’s protests outside of the Bohemian Rhapsody premier in 2018, in light of Freddie Mercury, from the band Queen, dying of AIDS complications. They protested for equal access to HIV preventative treatment for all and it brought the discussion of the disease back to the surface- to remind people that the struggle is far from over.
An Influential Move
Alongside this, public figures have joined the movement, with American singer-songwriter Madonna raising more than $1.7 million for HIV/AIDS research, becoming a contemporary LGBTQ+ icon. And to add to this, many individuals in the public sphere have made their AIDS status known to reduce stigma. This includes Rock Hudson, who was one of the first celebrities to share his diagnosis in 1984. In 2013, Pope Francis declared “who am I too judge,” despite traditional condemnation of homosexuality from the Catholic Church. These collective efforts have all contributed to the fight against AIDS, forcing governments to recognise it as a legitimate issue and reduce its stigma.
Intersectionality of the Movement: Recognition for All Involved?
It is key to recognise the importance of intersectionality in movements with many individuals being disadvantaged for other factors such as race, disability, and gender, creating further disparity that goes beyond sexuality.
There are many figures in LGBTQ+ history who are neither white nor male whose efforts have shaped the way gay rights are in contemporary society, so to erase them from history would be a complete injustice. Marsha P. Johnson, an African American trans-rights activist and drag artist, who founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) alongside Sylvia Rivera and was a key figure in the Stonewall uprising in 1969. A monument of Marsha has been placed across from Stonewall Inn to commemorate her determined efforts, remembering her as the symbol of courage that she is. All activists deserve recognition.
In addition to the work from activists, institutional efforts are also being made. In 1988, World AIDS Day was conceived in Geneva, Switzerland. Its first focus was on reducing the stigma surrounding the disease by educating children around the globe with the facts and realities of AIDS. The theme has changed every year, reflecting on contemporary issues and goals for policy change, with 2021s theme being titled “End inequalities. End AIDS. End pandemics.”. More recently, the mandatory teaching of LGBTQ+ history in schools in Scotland became enforced, hoping to destigmatise homosexuality and the history of HIV within the LGBTQ+ community.
Aside from this, in 2001, representatives from across the world joined via the UN to discuss a response to the AIDS crisis which became the first disease to be considered a security issue. This resulted in a global fund for the disease and a space for activists and affected communities to speak in subsequent Global Fund Board meetings. Despite the issue becoming less prevalent in the West, it continues to cause mass suffering elsewhere, especially areas with less access to resources and education on the disease. So, are we collectively moving forwards?
AIDS is now most common in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite cultures and laws differing hugely in this region, there are many instances where socio-economic circumstances and legislation act as barriers to AIDS prevention. For example, in less affluent regions it is harder to access preventative measures, such as condoms, because they are either not provided or highly inaccessible. And this is exacerbated by the fact that the exception of South Africa and Cape Verde, the rights of those who identify as homosexual are extremely limited in comparison to Western Europe and much of the Americas and Oceania. This has led to many societies maintaining strong homophobic attitudes, whilst continue to stigmatise AIDS. The clear message here is that without barriers to AIDS prevention being reduced, and the stigmatisation, often created through laws, the disease could unfortunately claim the lives of millions more.
An Optimistic Outlook?
As a world, we are moving forward. But it is important not to overgeneralise. Action is still needed, particularly in parts of the world where there are many barriers and stigmas associated with the contraction of HIV. But with more LBGTQ+ movements, more international calls, and more institutional efforts, one day AIDS might no longer be a deadly disease.
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