Started in 1985, the quilt is comprised of over 480,000 panels remembering loved ones who died from AIDS. It weighs 54 tons and is displayed all over the world. (Photo: Public Domain)
On June 5, 1981, the Center for Disease Control published the first report of a new strain of pneumonia that resulted in the deaths of 5 young homosexual males in Los Angeles, CA. Within six months, 5 to 6 new cases of the disease were being reported weekly. At first, the disease appeared to be targeting the gay community, earning the acronym GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency). However more cases appeared documenting the disease in heterosexual males and females, infants, intravenous drug users, and patients receiving blood transfusions. By September of 1982, the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was first used publicly, at which time the number of reported cases had risen to 2 per day.
Unfortunately, due to lack of scientific understanding about the HIV virus and the negative stigma that surrounded the disease because of homophobia and lack of compassion for intravenous drug users, the government remained remarkably quiet about the issue. People were confused about the cause of the epidemic and many were unsure whether it was airborne or transmitted through touch, intercourse, or in the blood. It was not until 1985 that scientists even understood how the virus was transmitted, and even then there were many misconceptions in the general public. This was partly due to the fact that President Ronald Reagan did not publicly mention AIDS and the spreading AIDS epidemic in America until September 17, 1986. Reagan’s administration was unwilling to educate people on safe-sex practices. Instead they decided to promote abstinence and issued a ban to refuse admittance of HIV positive immigrants and travelers into the United States. Many local state and LBGT and humans rights activist groups tried to compensate for the Reagan administration’s silence by raising money and awareness.
Ryan White, diagnosed with AIDS at age 13, became a spokesperson against discrimination. His mother has continued his work creating the non-profit Ryan White Foundation. (Photo: http://hab.hrsa.gov)
Despite their efforts, widespread ignorance about the illness and homophobia lead to rampant discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS and against people of the gay community. In 1985, Ryan White, a 13-year old boy who had contracted the HIV virus from blood transfusions for his hemophilia, was banned from attending his middle school out of fear he would contaminate the other students. He was re-admitted after taking legal action, but was treated so cruelly, he and his mother moved to a new town to start over. White became the poster child for HIV/AIDS awareness in an effort to end instances all over the country of people with HIV/AIDS being refused work, school, and treatment.
Pedro Zamora (Photo: Public Domain)
Another important figure for HIV/AIDS awareness was the MTV reality star Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American who was diagnosed with HIV at age 17 and toured the country lecturing on HIV/AIDS. In 1993, he joined the cast of MTV’s Real World: San Francisco and through the reality show, made a huge impact creating sympathy for both homosexuals and people suffering from AIDS. He and his boyfriend were even married live on the air. Weeks before Zamora’s death in 1994, President Bill Clinton personally called him to congratulate him on his great efforts.
Figures like Zamora and White greatly impacted how the young Gen X generation was trying to navigate this very scary and confusing time. Aids victims were their contemporaries, children and youths just like them, who were afflicted and treated as outsiders. Many members of young Gen X showed compassion for people suffereing from AIDS, as their generation was more accepting of differences due to a global mindset. Many people also lost family members, friends, and loved ones and this opened up their compassion for those suffering from AIDS. This was contrasted with others, who felt a plague had come to finally destroy modern society. The contrast in how our society viewed AIDS gave Gen X a cynical view of the world, where instead of being passed down the ideals of free love from the Baby-Boomers, they were dealt the painful realities of a world where AIDS was a serious threat and discrimination was rampant.
By 1992, AIDS had become the number one cause of death for men age 25-44 and by 1995, nearly 500,000 people had died from AIDS in the United States. However, 1995 was also the year that researchers discovered the positive effects of the protease inhibitor drug saquinavir when accompanying ATZ. The combination of the “cocktail” of drugs changed being HIV positive from a death sentence to a manageable condition. Now, due to the anti-discriminatory legislation that has been passed, HIV positive members of society have the same rights as any person with a disability and most people who are able to get treatment early on in their diagnosis can live long, normal lives.