AIDS in the 80s: The Forgotten Generation

Globally known as HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus has unequivocally left its mark in the history of disease that has killed millions and infected many tens of millions more throughout the world. Entering its fourth decade, HIV has rampaged communities across culture, age, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, geographic region, religious denomination, etc.
Thirty years ago, contracting HIV was a death sentence. Patients had only months before they succumbed to the infection. Panic was all abound. Not really knowing what it was, how it was transmitted or treated, HIV patients became the new contagion scare. As it began to spread rapidly among gay men, it was soon referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), and quickly, the common street name became the Gay Plague.
Families, friends and partners losing their loved ones was the deplorable pattern then. No knowledge of prevention methods and no medication to treat HIV made matters worse. It was not until gay men continued to die in disproportionate numbers and countless more became infected that HIV began to make the headlines in media outlets, community organizations and clinics.
Tired of feeling hopeless burying one comrade after another, advocates and activists rallied at community events and town hall meetings. The desperate cry for help even made it to The White House in the first ever display of the AIDS Quilt on October 11th 1987 – marking the beginning of National Coming Out Day.

In marches and candlelight vigils, the HIV population held on dearly to their very existence. Throughout the 80s all practically survived without medication. In the 90s, they finally caught a break when Antiretroviral Drugs were introduced as part of available regimens, allowing them to fight HIV more effectively and improve health conditions.

It is 2011 today. Thirty years later one would have thought HIV would be under control. Far from! The pool of those living with HIV increases exponentially as the years go by. Similarly, the rate of HIV infection in the US has not decreased. And alarmingly, the number of dollars to serve this growing population is shrinking.

Advocates, activists, researches and service providers alike today, we scratch our heads trying to figure out what is not working. All the fallen ones from that decade when no information, treatment, or resources were available, would have a VERY strong opinion about the current state of HIV.

There are programs that incentivize HIV testing. In California, ADAP (AIDS Drugs Assistance Program) pays for HIV medications and is one of the finest formularies in the nation. Clinics provide free medical, dental and vision treatment for those who qualify. There are Mobile Testing Units that go to community events and social venues to make HIV screening more readily available. And yet, despite all, there are many who turn a blind eye.

Again, it is 2011. Barebacking. Bug-chasing. Non-adherence. Unprotected intercourse. Complacent trust. STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis becoming resistant to antibiotic treatment. Hepatitis C. Genital Warts. Bathhouses/Sex Clubs. Have we learned nothing?

I contend that this generation has forgotten what it was like to catch HIV in the 80s, and literally drop dead within months. Those were not given a choice.

In this month of World AIDS Day, go beyond wearing a red ribbon. Be honest with yourself and accountabilize your substance use behaviors, your sexual practices, your HIV knowledge, your open communication with your sexual partners, AND most importantly your ability and willingness to change.

An entire generation was lost to HIV. These could have been the mentors and role models that the LGBT community desperately needs. Gay youth are killing themselves to nonsense.

If the 80s generation could speak to today’s LGBT teens, I am sure it would be a different message, other than the hang-in-there one that is not working. If the 80s generation could send an HIV prevention message, it would be one to treasure and value our health. Until a cure is found, catching HIV is a life-sentence.

All above said, the 80s generation is now a forgotten past that one day will resurface to remind us about just how “good” we have it now with all the free resources that many of us may be taking for granted. Do what you can to be part of the solution, not the problem!
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By Joseph García