The early years of AIDS were a time of great fear and anxiety for gay men around the world.* The bulk of this was generated by the mysterious and lethal nature of this new condition. But there was another element that exacerbated the situation – the homophobia whipped up by irresponsible media. Central to this was the sustained use of the terms ‘gay plague’ and ‘gay bug’ when referring to AIDS.
Yet AIDS was never a ‘plague’ and the notion that it was somehow a consequence of a person’s sexual orientation was discounted just over a year after the disease was first identified. Nonetheless, media usage of the term increased rather than decreased in the face of this evidence.
The Oxford English dictionary defines a plague as either:
“A contagious bacterial disease characterized by fever and delirium, typically with the formation of buboes…”
“A contagious disease that spreads rapidly and kills many people.”
Even in the earliest days of its manifestation, it was clear that the disease was not spread by the type of casual contact with which plagues are spread. On September 9th, 1983, the US Centers for Disease Control explicitly identified all major routes of transmission as well as ruling out the possibility of transmission through casual contact:
“…AIDS is caused by an agent that is transmitted sexually or, less commonly, through contaminated needles or blood…there has been no evidence that the disease was acquired through casual contact with AIDS patients or with persons in population groups with an increased incidence of AIDS. AIDS is not known to be transmitted through food, water, air or environmental surfaces.”
Nonetheless, this did not stop headlines such as The Star’s “Kiss of Death” (27th September 1985) or The Sun’s “It’s spreading like wildfire.” (1st February 1985). *
A ‘Gay’ Disease?
As for the ‘gay’ connection, there is no doubt that AIDS was first detected in gay men and, for a brief period, desperate researchers examined the so-called ‘gay lifestyle’ for clues as to causation. Sadly, this resulted in the creation of the acronym GRID – “Gay Related Immune Deficiency”. But GRID was only adopted from early 1982 until July 27th 1982, when the Centers for Disease Control realised, amongst other things, that there’s no such thing as a universal “gay lifestyle”.
Even references to Kaposi’s Sarcoma as “the gay cancer” in the gay media had tailed off by December 1982. (For example, ‘”Gay cancer” and poppers are not linked’, HIM Monthly, December 1982).
By 1983 it was clear that AIDS was a global issue that was affecting different groups in different countries. In France and Belgium, for example, the majority of cases were heterosexuals – many with links to Central Africa. At the same time, studies coming out of Africa were showing not only that AIDS had been around long before its emergence in the West but also that it was transmitted predominantly through heterosexual sex. *
And yet media usage of the terms ‘gay plague’ and ‘gay bug’ was only just beginning. For example, The Australian was one of the first newspapers to use the term (‘”Gay plague” epidemic sweeping US’, 17th July 1982). The following month the Philadelphia Daily News ran ‘”Gay plague” Baffling Medical Detectives’ (9th August 1982). In the UK it didn’t appear until nine months after the CDC had abandoned the term ‘GRID’ (“What killed gay plague man?” The Times, 27th March 1983). But then it continued relentlessly, with headlines such as the Daily Mail’s “Britain threatened by gay virus plague” (6th January 1985) continuing into the late 80s.
So why did the media continue to call AIDS ‘the gay plague’ in spite of the evidence? I think part of the clue lies in what a journalist told one of my colleagues when I worked at the Terrence Higgins Trust in 1984 – “AIDS sells more newspapers than bingo.”
AIDS had everything – sex, celebrity exposes, moral enterprise, conspiracy theories and the opportunity to kick a group that was already marginalised from mainstream society. It allowed people to conclude that our ‘lifestyles’ actually generated AIDS as God’s punishment, and it was used to suggest that we were both a physical and moral threat to ‘innocent’ people. Not only were we immensely contagious we were also deliberately contaminating the blood supplies. The repeated use of the term ‘innocent victim’ simply reinforced this idea.
History should judge the media harshly when it comes to their coverage of AIDS. Whilst there were some intelligent exceptions to the rule, the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers stuck to their usual motto of “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
- There is a detailed study of the early days of HIV/AIDS, including the true epidemiology and a study of how the Press reported it, in my eBook Gay in the 80s. Full details are available here.