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HIV: Shame, Prejudice and Politics

By Leah Berger

For many years in the 1980s, there was raging terror and prejudice surrounding HIV. It can be said that remnants of this prejudice can still be seen today within the cracks of our society. Back in the 1980s, no one knew exactly what HIV was or how it was transmitted. All anyone knew for sure is that people were dying from it, and no one could really explain why. It was a scary time, and peoples fear, fueled their prejudice. People all over the world watched loved ones around them begin to die unexplainable deaths from this mysterious disease.


There was a lot of misconception surrounding this virus. For a long time, HIV was labelled the “gay plague” in the UK. It seemed that for the early part of the 1980s, HIV was only affecting gay and bi men. This could be due to the fact that at the time, places like London and other big cities were clubbing hotspots. Many young men would flock to these hotspots where they finally had some freedom to express their sexuality and find a partner. However, men don’t get pregnant, so many men at the time didn’t see a reason for wearing a condom during sex. Unprotected sex amongst the gay community was very common at that time, with very little LGBTQ+ sex education available, and the virus began to spread.


The beginning of the HIV epidemic had substantial cultural and political implications. During the time, there was an emergence of LGBTQ+ people fighting for their rights in an anti-gay political environment. Even though gay people were one of the largest groups affected by the virus, they were often ignored in campaigns to raise money for treatments and sometimes neglected within hospitals. At the time, the Thatcher government feared that addressing the concerns of homosexual people directly and educating them about having safer sex would encourage more “deviance”. Campaigns were instead centred around monogamy or celibacy as the only way to prevent HIV. So instead of educating people on how exactly it was spread, an environment of fear was created.


Did this epidemic make the fight towards equality for all sexual orientations harder? Or did it fuel the fire within the people willing to fight for their rights? Arguably, the epidemic did both. On the one hand, it gave any homophobic members of government leverage to turn around and say that this virus was a consequence of being gay. However, on the other hand, it led to people coming together on their own accord to help. Families, friends and people of power were sympathetic to the losses and soon began to back the gay-rights movement.


Communities took the initiative and began to develop organisations to help educate people about the virus and hopefully prevent it from spreading. The lesbian and gay community played an important role in providing accurate and trustworthy information about the disease and formed organisations such as the Body Positive organisation, which still exist today. The government only set up a legal cabinet committee for AIDS in 1986. Many politicians spoke freely about isolating the gay community and letting the virus continue to sweep through. The chief constable of Manchester referred to the gay people as, “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”. Many ignorantly thought that they would not be able to contract the illness.


However, after the initial hesitancy, the government took a more liberal approach. They decided to start focusing on safe sex rather than no sex and changed the way they were campaigning. This approach was picked up internationally and used by the World Health Organisation. This change may have saved many people from contracting the virus as they began to practice safe sex.


The epidemic was devastating, and it is one that we are still fighting today. People around the world are still suffering from this virus. According to the World Health Organisation, since the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s, over 70 million people have acquired the infection and more than 35 million people have died.


Today we have easily accessible testing and treatment for HIV, this means that anyone living with HIV who is on effective treatment cannot pass on the virus. With effective treatment, it cannot be passed on through unprotected sex or any other way.


However, in the 1980s, there were no antiretrovirals.


In the wake of another virus that has spread worldwide, it is interesting to look back at the HIV epidemic and its impact. Will this pandemic divide us, or force us to work together and protect each other’s rights?


Find out more about HIV through Terrence Higgins Trust

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