AIDS, Fifty Years Later

Jim Burroway

December 1st, 2006

That’s right. Fifty years — and that estimate is on the low end. And here you thought AIDS was “only” twenty-five years old.

In 1986, Dr. A.J. Nahmias, writing in the journal Lancet, reported on testing that had been done on blood samples taken during a 1959 malaria study in Kinshasa, in what was then the Belgian Congo. When those preserved samples were tested in 1986, one sample tested positive for the HIV virus. Other stored blood samples from Central Africans taken in 1960’s and 1970’s tested positive as well. According to one expert:

If the prevalence detected in those collections is at all representative, several hundred or several thousand HIV infections may already have existed in Kinshasa in 1959 and 1970, several tens of thousands by 1980, and tens or hundreds of HIV infections in (the Zairian province of) Equateur by 1976…

Doctors in Europe were baffled by a mysterious disease that they were seeing in wealthy Africans who were going to Paris and Brussels for treatment in the late 1970’s. This new disease was similar to diseases that some European doctors were themselves suffering and dying from — doctors who had served several years meeting the medical needs of poor villagers in the Congo River basin under primitive conditions in the 1970’s. This new disease was also similar to one that suddenly started appearing among Haitians, after thousands had returned to that island after working for several years in civil service jobs in the newly independent country of Zaire. And later, this strange new disease was similar to diseases that were striking otherwise healthy gay men in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami.

It was easy for AIDS to go unrecognized in Africa amid impoverished conditions, poor nutrition and hygiene, and social upheaval. But we now know that AIDS began spreading through Africa some fifty years ago. (Some believe it may have started in the human population in the 1930’s.) But it wasn’t until gay men in America started dying of the disease that the world took notice, and the world noticed it as a “gay plague”.

Today is World AIDS Day. AIDS is likely more than fifty years old, but the stigma surrounding it dates to June 5, 1981, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first report on the syndrome. Today, we remember those millions who died here in America and around the world. And just as importantly, we honor those who survived and cared for the dying and the living.

The word “family” has a very strong resonance in the gay community — in a way that few outside of the community know about. When someone wants to ask whether someone is gay or not, the question most often asked is “Is he family?” That’s not a rhetorical question; “Family” is an honorific that the gay community has earned through twenty-five years of hard work and determination. As those with AIDS were cast out of their own homes and natural families, they turned to those who stepped in and filled the rightful role of family in their lives. The gay community has reinvented the family, not in imitation of what others think a family should look like, but in response to the life-and-death need for all of us to be “our brother’s keeper.” AIDS, more than anything, awakened a realization in the gay communities that nothing is more important than family. And today’s drive for gay marriage was born from this realization of how very essential family is to each and every one of us.

In Opportunistic Infections, I discuss how the stigma of AIDS has shaped the gay communities in America, and how the gay communities have risen to meet the challenge when no one else would. AIDS was the conflagration that forged a new sense of community and determination that never again will we be marginalized in such a cruel and heartless fashion. And never again will we be denied the simple dignity that is due to everyone who is born a child of God.

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