The Risk of Sex, Love, & Passion

The Risk of Sex, Love, & Passion : How the HIV Crisis Continues to Impact the Queer Community

Written by Cole Hansen

January 31, 2024

Multiple newspaper cutouts of articles from the 80's revolting against the queer community

Why History Matters

For over 40 million people, being loved was a death sentence. The height of the HIV epidemic was a time in history for many things, but for queer people, it was a time of not feeling safe in your own home and or your own skin. Today, the fear 2SLGBTQ+ people face is external. We worry about whether we’re safe in certain areas, whether we look too gay or too butch, or if we have to remove our eyeliner, clothing, or jeweler before going home because it’s not safe. But at the height of the HIV epidemic, being 2SLGBTQ+ meant that not only were you afraid of the things around you,  you were afraid of the things inside you.

During the rise of HIV in the ‘80s, it took years for queer people to receive the support they needed. From the first reported cases of HIV in 1981, it took two years before they discovered the causes of HIV, four years before tests were developed, and four years for President Reagan to hold the first press conference on the crisis. Meanwhile, 2SLGBTQ+ people suffered; suffered with HIV, with the increasing stigma of being queer and with the fear of whether their own body was killing them. Before HIV was even widely understood, it was known as the Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), which shows the depth of fear and hatred that existed towards our community. 

We now live in a time where we often don’t think about what it was like to be queer only 40 years ago, but it’s important to understand what our community went through. Not only because it allows us to connect with generations of queer people but because it reminds us of the fact that we live in a world of queer rights that were fought for by our community during that time.

Now and Then

In 1987, three children were denied school enrollment because of their HIV status. When their family sued the school board and won, angry parents pulled their children out of school and took to the streets to protest the attendance of those children. Within three weeks of winning the court case, an angry member of the community burnt down the home of the HIV-positive children. 

What’s different between being queer now and being queer during the HIV epidemic is that we face different challenges. While being queer now is generally more accepted (especially in a North American context), if you were queer in the ‘80s, you and the small community that supported you were the slim minority. Since our experiences are so different, it’s easy to not realize the struggles that were faced by our own community during the HIV crisis.

To be gay during the height of the HIV epidemic was to be a carrier of the “gay plague.” If you were out, you were seen as an infection risk, and there was little compassion. A simple cough would spread rumors that you had AIDS. This treatment (both in and outside the queer community) led to people not getting tested because they believed there wasn’t a point. Since there was no cure, getting tested was seen not only as a death sentence but also as the perfect way to get fired from work, to get kicked out of your home, or to get abandoned by your family. 

So, people wouldn’t get tested, and instead, they’d “recloset” themselves both in public and the gay community. They didn’t want the public to know they were gay, and they didn’t want the gay community to know they were positive. Because in either situation, they were expelled from their families, their friends, and their communities. 

It’s interesting how this compares to what we think of HIV testing today. The 2023 Sex Lives Report found that 80% of youth don’t participate in regular HIV testing. When we look at why this could be, a 2021 study found that an HIV diagnosis often comes with fear of loneliness and disgrace. So, it’s easy to see where this fear of testing comes from. The stigma around HIV still exists, and it leads to people refusing to test.

Connecting to the Loss of Queer Experiences

The experiences of people like Erin Allday and Thomas Mallon demonstrate the reality of what it was like to be gay and to live during the HIV epidemic. For some, it was going to your doctor who told them they were basically guaranteed to get AIDS; for others, it was waking up every morning — for decades — wondering if today was the day you’d wake up with hand lesions, knowing that would be the beginning of the end. 

Connecting with the experience of different generations of queer communities not only bonds us but allows us to remember why we must continue fighting. Stigma, fear, and discomfort within our community around HIV/AIDS exist because of what happened during that time. While younger generations may not have directly dealt with the HIV crisis, we’ve lost those who would have been our mentors, our teachers, and our community. 

It’s because of this we have to continue forward, not only because we could lose our rights at any time but it’s also so that the millions of people who died can be remembered as fighters, advocates, and people who just wanted to live in a world where they could be loved. 

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