This week in history, medical journalist Lawrence Altman in the New York Times broke the story of what would become AIDS into public consciousness. The alternative New York paper, the Village Voice immediately complained calling it “the despicable attempt of The New York Times to wreck the July 4 holiday break for every homosexual in the Northeast.”It did indeed wreck the mood for a generation and caused significant panic, fear and anxiety in those early years of the epidemic. According to epidemiologists, Canada saw a two year time lag in the progression of the disease, “or epidemic curve” relative to the United States. As if on cue, Calgary’s first AIDS death was in early June 1983. One Calgarian, who has been living with HIV for 28 years, describes the pervasive mood in the gay community then as one of hopelessness and hysteria. He feels his generation of gay men, at some level, still carry that fear inside themselves today.
AIDS tore apart the closet for many in the gay community. Society at large could no longer ignore the queers who were dying in their midst. And as the disease spread into the heterosexual community a diffuse AIDS panic caused widespread hostility towards the LGBTQ community, creating both martyrs and activists in droves.
Only now, from a generational distance, are we seeing the long-term effects of the bomb that was AIDS in the 80s. Sexual behaviour became a lighting rod for tension within the gay community. The Body Politic, Canada’s gay newspaper that was founded on gay liberation principles, had an editorial approach to AIDS coverage that was: “skepticism of scientific and media authority; the need to resist panic and hysteria both within and beyond the gay community; the need to seek information on which we can make informed judgments about sexual practices; and, most recently, the need to preserve what is best and most distinctive about gay erotic culture in the face of a disease which apparently threatens its very roots.”
Other voices, confronted liberation politics, entreating gay men away from promiscuity and towards pursing a gay equality human rights agenda. Some academics, connect AIDS activism to the rise of the equality movement, whose ultimate manifest came in the form of same-sex marriage.
And this is the lasting legacy of AIDS. A heady combination of militant gay action, tragic loss, medical ingenuity, and public sympathy accelerating gay rights far faster than anyone could have expected in July 1981.