June 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. This is the fifth reflection from my experience working with HIV/AIDS, 1984-1993. You can catch up on previous installments by clicking on HIV/AIDS in the Topics box.
The early years of AIDS was very scary for most. It was often talked about like the Black Death of the 14th century and the flu pandemic of 1918. Sexual orientation profiling and homophobic reactions ran rampant. People with AIDS were fired from their jobs and hateful things were scrawled on their front doors. Neighborhoods organized and ostracized the same gay couples they had been socializing with for years.
Outreach to at-risk communities was well underway, but the concern that confidentiality would be breached if someone tested positive, was reason enough for someone to put off getting tested. By the time someone was tested, they often already had AIDS. It was like receiving a death sentence.
AIDS was consistently in the media, but fear of the stigma associated with the disease, kept people hidden and isolated. And new cases were presenting at an alarming rate.
Then in 1985, it became known that Hollywood celebrity Rock Hudson had AIDS. He was one of the first major celebrities to put a face to AIDS. Olympic diving champion, Greg Louganis’ HIV diagnosis became public in 1988. The fear and stigma was still there, but recognizable and respected people were willing to speak up.
My elementary school-aged sons and I were living in the same town as my grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt. We were having dinner together one evening and my great-aunt was asking me about our AIDS cases in the county. She was asking all sorts of questions and I was thrilled to be talking with her and my grandmother since my grandmother worried about me being exposed to “God knows what”.
There was a lull in our conversation and I asked her want sparked her interest. Tears came to her eyes and she said her son had recently told her he had AIDS. It was the first time she spoke about it to anyone. I knew people with AIDS, but now someone in my family had AIDS.
Constructive conversations were starting to be had and we were learning more and more about HIV and AIDS, but the overwhelming majority of those diagnosed with AIDS would be dead within six to nine months. Putting a face to AIDS may have made the disease more public, but it didn’t lessen anyone’s fear or grief.