Friday, May 8, 2009

A "Mystery Illness" Affects Homosexuals

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,”


  1. I almost chose this topic myself, very interested to read how the issue was covered in terms of the homosexual aspect. I read material from the LA and NY Times and was impressed by what I thought to be very unbiased coverage. Yes, it's true the paper reported that the homosexuals infected had frequent sexual partners, but that's a fact that is extremely relevant (especially now that we know your chances of catching an STI are increased with each partner you have). I only thought it was unnecessary and inciteful of judgment by the public to note that many of these sexual encounters were completely anonymous, where the men did not even know each other's names. I cringed at that part, knowing how the readers would take that information and run with it, condemning gays as immoral sexual deviants.

    I was so interested in the account of the facts but the failure to piece them all together. In the cancer article, it was reported at the very end of the article that a doctor found that these men had some strange immune deficiency. I thought to myself, "Hello!" Everyone else was focused on the cancer and whether it was contagious. The article noted that these men's family members remained uninfected. This is where I speak of failing to connect the dots. The men are known to sleep around yet nobody surmised maybe that's how the infection is spreading? Funny, their family members aren't catching it! Maybe because they don't have sex with their relatives!

  2. I think that this topic really speaks to the importance of diversity in the newsroom. If editors are working from one, possibly conservative perspective, then discriminatory phrases or terms are more likely to be used and the issues portrayed are more likely to be framed in a stereotypical light.
    The business model of journalism I think also comes into play because newspapers are reliant upon advertiser support in order to make a profit and stay in business. If the advertisers are conservative and have certain beliefs, the newspaper is more likely to reflect those beliefs in the way in which their stories are framed simply to keep the money flowing. I wouldn’t dare to call it journalism at that point.
    Also, things like good news gathering come into play when statistics and facts are being wrongly quoted as you said happened in the New York Times article.
    I definitely appreciated the fact that this was well written and concise.