Safety in Numbers

Chapter 5

The De-gaying of AIDS

AIDS IS A GAY DISEASE! There. I said it. And I believe it. If I hear one more time that AIDS is not a gay disease, I shall vomit. AIDS is a gay disease because a lot of gay men get AIDS.
Michael Callen (1)


This epidemic is unique in so far as prevention has been prevented, rather than transmission. Resources and education campaigns have been remorsely targetted at those at least risk of contracting HIV, as if the priority of preventing an epidemic among heterosexuals had been established at the expense of halting the epidemics that are actually raging throughout the developed world.
Simon Watney (2)

From the mid-1980s, AIDS has been systematically de-gayed. De-gaying is the term used to describe the denial or downplaying of the involvement of gay men in the HIV epidemic, even when gay men continue to constitute the group most severely affected, and when the lesbian and gay community continues to play a pioneering role in non-governmental (and sometimes governmental) responses, such as the development of policy or the provision of services to people living with HIV.

In some respects, the de-gaying of AIDS occurred in an unplanned, unconscious way; in others, it reflected institutionalised cowardice and cant. However, in most cases de-gaying was a deliberate strategy, implemented in good faith and with good intentions from a particular moment in the AIDS epidemics of the United States and Great Britain, as an emerging international consensus stressed the potential danger of an explosion of HIV infection among the (heterosexual) population at large. With the benefit of hindsight, however, one can only conclude that the dehomosexualisation of AIDS has led directly to the marginalisation of gay men's unparalleled experience and contributions to fighting the epidemic, and has ultimately exacerbated the harmful effects of the epidemic on those who are most at risk.


The evolution of prevention policies

Commentators and analysts have formulated a number of different periodisations of the AIDS epidemic, in which various stages of the epidemic are characterised by evolving policy responses. For the social historian Jeffrey Weeks, 1981-1982 was a period of "dawning crisis" when researchers and gay men alike stumbled towards an understanding of and resistance to the epidemic, while government merely showed indifference. Weeks characterises 1982-1985 both by media and popular hysteria and by the development of organised self-help responses particularly from within the lesbian and gay communities. Finally, from 1985 to the present, he argues that policies have reflected "crisis management", with the death of Rock Hudson in October 1985 contributing to public and government concern about the "generalisation of risk" - "a fear that AIDS might infiltrate the so-called general population". During this period AIDS organisations tended to grow fast in size and ambition:


In part, this involved a professionalization of the self-help groupings themselves, as public funds flowed into them, and demands on their services increased... At the same time, a different sort of professionalism began to merge which actively distanced itself from the lesbian and gay community as AIDS became seen as a universal problem. (3)

Virginia Berridge and Philip Strong specify three policy phases which are different from, but complementary to, those of Weeks. This analysis argues that during 1981-1986, a "policy community" was gradually constructed, with significant involvement both of gay groups and of clinical and scientific experts. During a brief period of "wartime emergency" in 1986-1987, AIDS emerged as a political priority, with some sections of society "put on almost a wartime footing to meet what was regarded as a national emergency". This has been followed by a period of "normalization" from 1987/8 to the present, in which:


AIDS and the reaction to it are becoming part of the normal policy and institutional processes. The threat of immediate epidemic spread has receded; and the threat of widespread heterosexual infection no longer seems imminent. (4)

A further account by Anthony Vass, based on an analysis of media coverage of the epidemic in Britain, argues that the key moment of transition was in early 1985. From this point, in the crudely simplistic eyes of the newspapers:


AIDS no longer confined itself to sexually promiscuous homosexuals; or 'innocent' victims, like h�mophiliacs; or intravenous drug addicts. AIDS could now be passed on to children, unborn babies, prostitutes, 'normal' heterosexuals, men and women, young and old. Nobody could be complacent, or feel safe. (5)

In response to public and medical concern, the Government acted by allocating �4 million to blood screening facilities and introducing statutory regulations as an extension to the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 to detain in hospital people with AIDS whom the courts decide are a threat to others. Sir Donald Acheson, Chief Medical Officer to the Health Department, declared that the epidemic was "the biggest health problem since World War Two". (6)

These various analyses share the view that from 1985/6 onwards, concern about the "generalisation of risk" described by Weeks figured prominently in the policies of both government and non-governmental AIDS organisations. Having previously been viewed with various degrees of indifference or malicious glee by the populace, the media and public health agencies, AIDS now became a concrete concern because of the impression that it now threatened not just gay men, drug users or deeply unfortunate 'normal' people such as recipients of blood products, but (heterosexual) society at large.