How Homophobia Shaped Government Response to the AIDS Pandemic

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According to the World Health Organisation, 33 million people have died of HIV/AIDS globally since the first cases were detected nearly 40 years ago.

When HIV/AIDS first became a concern of the British general public in the 1980s, as opposed to just those suffering from it, there was a great deal of misinformation and fear surrounding the condition. Although individuals of all sexualities and genders can suffer from HIV and AIDS, at the time, a large proportion of people who had the virus were gay or bisexual men, or intravenous drug users.

In an effort to raise awareness of the impacts of HIV/AIDS and to help slow the spread of the pandemic, the government introduced a campaign. At the time, most people who had contracted the disease had done so by having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person. Thus, it made sense that a substantial part of the campaign should centre on encouraging safe sex, including the use of condoms and monogamy.

Unfortunately, the Conservative government at the time, led by Margaret Thatcher, had some issues with discussing the sex lives of all British adults, particularly non-heterosexual men. It is no surprise that Thatcher discouraged a national campaign which aimed to discuss safe sex for gay and bi men when one considers that Section 28 was introduced in the late 80s, banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. Thatcher was against the idea of mentioning anal sex in the campaigns, and things had to be changed to meet her requirements.

The government’s inability to create a campaign that effectively targeted the groups most at risk of the disease was caused by the refusal of those in power to discuss things that they considered taboo, namely the sex lives of gay and bisexual men. As such, much of this education was left to smaller charities (like the Terrence Higgins Trust), largely run by members of the LGBTQ community, whose reach and funding was certainly not as great as what the government was capable of.

Aside from the discussion surrounding safe sex, the government also introduced a number of advertisements regarding the virus which can only be described as frankly, quite frightening. In 1986, the government introduced the ‘Don’t Aid AIDS’ campaign. What is often remembered as the biggest part of the campaign is a particular TV advert which depicted a very large black grave with the word AIDS etched into it, followed by the slogan ‘Don’t die of ignorance’. The advert’s aim was clearly to ignite fear in people (especially sexually active young gay and bi men and intravenous drug users), as opposed to offering a genuine education on how to prevent the spread of AIDS and assist those already suffering from it.

Ultimately, the British government’s response to the AIDS pandemic was clouded by its prejudiced attitudes towards gay people. It is of course extremely important to remember that HIV and AIDS does not just affect homosexuals, and that there are many people across the globe of all genders and sexualities who have the condition, but this didn’t stop the pandemic causing a spike in homophobia in Britain at the time.

As of 2019, WHO reported that 38 million people are living with HIV worldwide. Thankfully, today many of those who have the disease live long and happy lives with the assistance of medication, and there have been many breakthroughs in terms of both the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. However, some countries across the globe do not have the same access to these treatments, and neither cases nor deaths will reduce or disappear until accessibility improves.

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Deputy Editor 2020/21. Final year History student.

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