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This 1986 photo of Ken Meeks – taken three days before he died of AIDS – put a human face on the ‘gay plague.’ (Alon REININGER/CONTACT Press Images)
This 1986 photo of Ken Meeks – taken three days before he died of AIDS – put a human face on the ‘gay plague.’ (Alon REININGER/CONTACT Press Images)

How the advent of AIDS advanced gay rights Add to ...

In the early 1980s, a new disease ravaged the gay community. It had many names: gay pneumonia, gay cancer, the gay plague and the more formal gay-related immune deficiency. The symptoms were visible and immediately recognizable: a disfiguring cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, extreme weight loss (wasting) and suffocating pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.

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The deadly disease, renamed acquired immune deficiency syndrome after the virus was identified, travelled quickly through the gay community, but fear travelled even faster in mainstream society.

Gay men, even men suspected of being gay, lost their jobs – they were evicted from apartments and they were ostracized. Newspapers carried earnest stories about the risks of catching AIDS from a toilet seat in a public restroom. Funeral homes refused to handle bodies, and hospitals turned patients away, or placed them in isolation. There was talk of quarantining the sick in modern-day leper colonies and tattooing the infected to warn prospective sex partners of the danger.

“No one is safe from AIDS,” blared Time magazine, which, in the pre-Internet era, was hugely influential. Pat Buchanan, communications director for president Ronald Reagan, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Some far-right fundamentalist preachers called for the death penalty for homosexuals and, across the Western world, there were moves to bar gays from the classroom, from health-care jobs and more.

It was a time of stigmatization and oppression, eerily similar to what is going on again now in large parts of the developing world, but on a grander scale and with more dire consequences. At least 76 countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have enacted anti-homosexual laws, and homophobia – and more disturbingly state-sanctioned homophobia and vigilantism – is on the rise. Sudan has the death penalty for anyone found to have committed “homosexual acts,” Uganda has harsh prison sentences for anyone who even dares to speak out in defence of a “known homosexual,” and Russia has labelled gay-rights groups as “enemies of the state.”

At the same time, three decades after the “gay plague” began, there is an once-unthinkable acceptance of same-sex relationships in the Western world: Gay marriage is widely accepted, human-rights protections have been extended to gays and lesbians, and events like World Pride are not only mainstream family activities, but tourist draws.

How did this happen? How did fear of pestilent homosexuals give way to acceptance of men loving men? And are the horrors that are taking place now in the developing world the last gasp of homophobes, an inevitable clash on the road to gay liberation?

“What we’re seeing today is two parallel stories: the relentless rise of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual [LGBT] rights in the Western world and the rise of homophobia and the trampling of rights elsewhere, and something has to give,” says Craig McClure, a former activist with the radical AIDS group Act Up and now the chief of HIV-AIDS at Unicef.

He says a lot of activists who fought the early battles for gay rights in the West are now in positions of power and influence, and they have an obligation to speak out for and come to the aid of those who are now being jailed, beaten and threatened with death because of their sexual orientation.

“I think we need to do a lot more to support our brothers and sisters in the developing world,” Mr. McClure says. “We should be as furious today as we were in the early days of the epidemic.” And furious they were.

When AIDS came along in the early 1980s, the gay rights movement was well under way. It was born, symbolically at least, in June, 1969, when police conducted a routine raid on a New York bar called Stonewall. Angered by the harassment, members of the gay community took to the streets in what came to be known as the Stonewall riots. The scenario was repeated with raids on bathhouses and gay bars in Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere, and the community pushed back with demonstrations and lawsuits. Emboldened, the gay bathhouse subculture came out of the shadows and many embraced promiscuity as a form of revolution.

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