The AIDS Epidemic: How protesters fought stigma, won medications, and transformed patients’ rights

The AIDS Epidemic: How protesters fought stigma, won medications, and transformed patients’ rights

By Logan Zurita McKinnon '24; Photo by the Human Rights Campaign 

The politicization of AIDS is an interesting phenomenon as it draws from not only mainstream social stigma but also from religious issues and politicians’ need to please their constituents. This timeline is a more comprehensive compilation of important historical moments in 40 years of HIV/AIDS history from 1981-2021, sourced from many different groups. Throughout, the constant battle for government recognition and assistance remained a permanent issue, as nearly every aspect of the virus was affected by the chess game of politics. From anti LGBTQ+ sentiments to slut-shaming to the tenuous role of sex and drug education for youths, AIDS activists were fighting an uphill battle – one that continues on even now.

Homophobia has been a root issue in fighting AIDS – considered a “gay disease,” AIDS was a very low priority for conservatives. The Reagan administration wasted precious time pretending AIDS wasn’t an issue, and by the time they were forced to take action, the virus had already taken root. This type of conservatism did not end in the eighties and is still prominent in politics today, causing issues for government officials who wish to enact some sort of positive change.

Sex education was both a sub concern and the main concern of the AIDS epidemic. Those who considered sex dirty often also attributed it to gay men and thus washed their hands of responsibility. Of course, AIDS does not only affect gay men – anyone can contract the virus – but the popular misconception persisted. This had a negative impact on youth, who were not properly taught how to have any sort of safe sex, heterosexual or otherwise.

All these issues conflicted with any real progress in the political sphere – officials from state governments to the United Nations struggled over how to combat the virus, as their perspective of the victims ranged wildly. This has resulted in a far longer battle against the virus than anyone could have anticipated and does not bode well for any government’s future in public health.

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