The early 1980s were years marked by unexplainable deaths and silent suffering that resulted from a mysterious disease, leaving doctors shrugging their shoulders and the mainstream press open to speculation. What is now known as AIDS/HIV, a serious condition that weakens the body’s immune system, was perceived as a certain death sentence in 1981 that seemed to have had infested itself in a particular community—homosexuals. There were a lot of misconceptions, rumors, and stereotypes attached to the epidemic as it was first brought to the public by the mainstream press in 1981. Partly due to lack of knowledge, but also because of sloppy reporting, these false notions have placed an irreversible stigma on the gay community that sadly prevails to this very day.
The disease first was reported on by the media after five young men from Los Angeles came to the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for symptoms that would later mark the onset of AIDS. All of these five men had a past of drug use and homosexual contact. On June 5, 1981, the CDC published a report called “Pneumocystis Pneumonia—Los Angles,” that profiled the men in a publication known as Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report. This report was followed by a wave of mainstream media reports that instilled fear about this deadly disease in the public and coined terms such as “gay cancer.” As Aids was claiming lives and isolating its victims, the mainstream press published articles based on much speculation. Factual errors common as little was known about the disease at the time, and a lot of the articles printed in 1981 had a very moralistic tone that shunned and blamed homosexuality for the sudden outbreak.
The term “gay cancer” was printed by the New York Times on July 3, 1981, and as a result stigmatized an entire community of homosexual men, and falsely portrayed the nature of the disease. This article was entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” and erred in much of its reporting. First of all, the article equated the AIDS virus with Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is a disease in which cancer cells develop in the tissues under the skin or mucous membranes. While Kaposi’s sarcoma can be a condition that results after the immune system is weaken by AIDS, it is not the same thing. Furthermore, the article reported that “doctors said that most cases had involved homosexual men who have had multiple and frequent sexual encounters with different partners, as many as 10 sexual encounters each night up to four times a week.” This in turn stigmatized homosexuals as being promiscuous and insinuated that their “immoral acts” spread the disease. Fear, confusion, and prejudice became a result of this kind of reporting for many years.
AIDS did not have a face until several years later, when actor Rock Hudson died of the disease in 1985. On October 2, 1985, the CBC Radio made a special broadcast in honor of Hudson, who shed light on the disease. The CBC report stated that in coming out to the public as having AIDS, Hudson “opened the public’s eyes to this disease,“ as well as prompting the government in funding AIDS research. There was a lot of coverage on Hudson’s “mystery illness”—however, these later reports were much more factual as more was learned about the disease.
Lawrence K. Altman, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” New York Times, 3 July 1981.
Arthur Hiller, “Rock Hudson Dies of Aids,” CBC Radio Broadcast, 2 October 1985.
National Minority Aids Council, “An Epidemic Begins,” http://www.nmac.org/index/the-need-for-nmac.