LGBTQ+ history: How we came to lead the fight against HIV

LGBTQ+ history: How we came to lead the fight against HIV

Jonathan Lawson

February 11, 2023

February is LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect on, celebrate and learn from the key events in LGBTQ+ history. There’s no denying the impact the HIV epidemic has had on the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, the LGBTQ+ community - through protest, campaign and advocacy - have led the fightback against HIV, pressing for changes that ultimately benefit everyone and bringing us within sight of the goal to end the epidemic by 2030.

The World Health Organization estimate that more than 40 million people have died as a result of HIV/AIDS, and more than 38 million people are currently living with HIV. Stopping the spread of HIV is not easy and we all have a part to play by testing regularly and taking preventative actions, including the use of PrEP.

The beginning of an epidemic

The first recorded death due to HIV happened in 1959 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although the virus itself wasn’t identified until 24 years later by scientists in Paris, and there are likely to have been earlier deaths that went unreported and unexplained.

HIV weakens the immune system, which protects the body from illnesses. If left untreated, this makes the body vulnerable to all kinds of other illnesses, ones that are normally not life-threatening or very rare, and these can lead to death.

Cases of HIV emerged occasionally during the 60s and 70s but the scope of the global epidemic first became apparent in the early 1980s with the appearance of numerous unusual medical cases in the US. People developed rare cancers, infections and illnesses largely linked with a weakened immune system.

More than just a disease of gay men

Several early examples of the effects of HIV were found in gay men and stigmatizing names that were used by the media to describe some of these mysterious illnesses included ‘gay cancer’ and ‘gay men’s pneumonia’.

For a short time the name ‘gay-related immune deficiency’ or GRID was even used to describe the underlying illness. Yet, around half of people affected weren’t gay and late in 1982, the CDC coined the name acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Although these events took place 40 years ago, the early use of these divisive names created prejudices about HIV that are still unfairly influencing people’s perceptions and behaviours today.

The deaths and persecutions that resulted from the early days of the HIV epidemic, will long be remembered as a dark time in our shared history. Yet, as the epidemic continued and understanding grew, it became increasingly obvious that HIV represented a significant risk to everyone.

Leading the fightback

Throughout the 1980s and beyond, the role of LGBTQ+ individuals in leading the response to HIV has been similarly unforgettable (find out more and from the Terrence Higgins Trust). As growing numbers lost friends and loved ones, more and more people turned to activism and protest (such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)), raising awareness, leading calls for political and healthcare changes and supporting the creation of specialist facilities and research programmes focused on HIV.

HIV care has come a long way over the last 40 years. Understanding the spread of HIV has helped to limit its spread. Antiretroviral drugs make it possible for people to live full and healthy lives with HIV, and treatment ensures they are unable to transmit the virus (learn more about U=U). More recently, PrEP and PEP have become available to HIV-negative people as pill-based preventatives that help stop the spread of HIV.

The hope for a HIV vaccine still lies ahead, and research is ongoing for more long-term treatments and preventatives. Yet, we are already close to beating HIV and, whether LGBTQ+ or not, by looking after our sexual health, learning more about HIV and PrEP, and working together to raise awareness and support each other, there is a very good chance that we can end the HIV epidemic by 2030.

If you are HIV-negative and not already on PrEP, contact your sexual health clinic to find out more.

Learn more about the history of the HIV epidemic with the timelines here and here