Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, stood at a podium in 1987 and said to those watching ‘when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?’. Such a statement was widely condemned, as was the Government’s response to combating the disease. Indeed, when you consider how important the fight against AIDS is now, the US government’s response in the 1980s was as incompetent as it gets.
New Zealand, in November of 2019, completed a major breakthrough in combating HIV/AIDS. They developed the world’s first HIV positive sperm bank. This allows those with HIV to donate sperm, with the virus itself contained to a level that it cannot be detected or even passed on through unprotected sex or childbirth. The medical progress is seen as a great victory in reducing the stigma for people suffering with the disease as revealed by donor Damien Rule-Neal who was first diagnosed 20 years ago
I want to show the world that life doesn’t stop post-diagnosis and help to remove the stigma.
Mr Neal is undoubtedly gracious and positive role model in the fight against HIV/AIDS, as is New Zealand. It is therefore nothing less than shameful when we look back at the US, the ‘Land of the Free’ and its response to the AIDS crisis that swept America, and indeed the world, in the 1980s.
The central reason as to why the Reagan Government’s response to the AIDS Crisis is very simple. His government, made up of a right-wing republican base was teeming with homophobia. A transcript, along with audio of White House press briefings, prove what little interest the Government had in dealing with this seriously. The first recorded question to the White House addressing AIDS in 1982 saw the Press Secretary laugh and suggest that the reporter asking the questions was a homosexual. A year later, when the issue was raised again, the Press Secretary was again amused, interpreting the reporters questions as an indication of his sexuality. Both subtle, yet undoubtedly homophobic remarks were met with laughter from the other reporters present at such press conferences.
The disease, that for all intents and purposes, was originally named ‘Gay Cancer’ by the US Media, symbolised the harshness of ‘Reaganism’ and the attitude of the administration towards the homosexual community. When UCLA first reported the disease in 1981, it was made very clear to everyone that it was the stereotypical hedonistic lifestyles of people who were gay that were to blame for the initial epidemic. The severity of the disease was not taken lightly within the community. Gay Rights Activist Larry Kramer remarked in 1982 that he had lost 15 friends to the diseases, with another 15 diagnosed. The Government, however, only saw fit to dedicate $12 million dollars to AIDS research. This was not enough. By 1987, over 16,000 people had died from the disease. The death of Rock Hudson, the first major celebrity fatally affected by HIV/AIDS, saw the amfAR (Foundation for AIDS Research Movement), formed in 1983, take a prominent role in fighting the disease as well as educating the wider public about its causes. The Reagan Administration would increase its research funding to $500 Million.
As the decade wore on, the myth of homosexual promiscuity was dispelled, as health officials began to understand the various ways the disease could be contracted. One such method was via blood transfusion, meaning that the disease would occur among hemophiliacs. This did little to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease. Indeed, for many hemophiliacs, the stigma it brought to their lives was not only unnecessary, but severely damaging. The most famous case was that of Ryan White, a young boy from Indiana. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and was expelled from school, amid fears from parents that their children would be susceptible to contracting it as well. White was allowed to return to school in 1986, and was catapulted into the national spotlight as a prominent AIDS activist. He rejected any claim that he was an ‘innocent’ victim, compared to gay people, who were shamefully and vindictively portrayed as guilty. White’s death in 1990 at the age of 18, saw tributes pour in from around the globe. What remains ingrained in public memory, was one from the then ex-President Reagan.
‘We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant…it’s the disease that’s frightening, not the people who have it.’
The US Government’s response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was far from acceptable. Those affected by the disease were demonised and humiliated by those elected to protect them, simply because of the way they chose to lead their lives. It took thousands of deaths and several years of campaigning for the President to even mention AIDS. However, we can be thankful that people like Larry Kramer and Ryan White did what they could to not only raise awareness and funds to combat the disease, they laid the foundations to reduce the stigma for people with AIDS. Without them, the revolutionary Sperm Bank in New Zealand may not have been possible.