Today in History: The Gay Men’s Health Crisis

Jim Burroway

January 12th, 2008

On January 12, 1982, eighty gay men gathered in writer Larry Kramer’s New York apartment to discuss the mysterious “gay cancer” that had been claiming the lives of their friends and lovers. Forced by bureaucratic apathy on the part of city officials, local health authorities, and even Mayor Ed Koch, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was born.

GMHC would go on to raise money to provide services and assistance for people with HIV/AIDS, including assistance from a large army of volunteers to meet day-to-day needs like cooking, housecleaning, dog-walking, and transportation to medical appointments, as well as help in navigating the apathetic bureaucratic maze. GMHC also distributed material to help educate the general public on the need for safer sex. In these areas, GMHC worked hard to meet the needs which had been, at best, ignored by local and national health authorities and charities (most shockingly, including most faith-based charities). GMHC also battled the overt stigmatization and hostility which grew among well-known public figures, nationally as well as locally.

GMHC quickly established itself as a well-regarded authority for HIV/AIDS education and service. By 1984, the Centers for Disease Control called on GMHC’s help in planning public conferences on AIDS. As the epidemic continued to grow, GMHC expanded its reach by assisting heterosexual men and women, hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users, and children. Today, the GMHC continues its work as one of the nation’s leading non-profit, volunteer-supported AIDS service and educational organizations.

Emily K

January 12th, 2008

why did HIV/AIDS get noticed in gay men first?

Suricou Raven

January 13th, 2008

1. Because it spread through that population first.

2. Because its easier to notice in a small community than the population as a whole.

3. Because the promiscuous gay steriotype does have some truth to it – not nearly so much as the anti-gay people claim, but enough to significently increase the rate at which a STI spreads within that population without rigerous use of condoms.

Emily K

January 13th, 2008

“3. Because the promiscuous gay steriotype does have some truth to it”

I kinda figured this would be one of the answers. Anyone else concur?

Jason D

January 14th, 2008

I’d like to clarify 3 if I may.

Condoms were developed originally as a contraceptive — to prevent pregnancy. And at the time of the beginning of the AIDS crisis — before we even knew what was going on — gay men had no need for them. As a friend of mine told me, “Condoms were for straight guys who had to worry about getting someone pregnant. All we did was make sure we had some lube in our back pockets.” All the other STDs were essentially treatable annoyances, or at least viewed that way. Yes, some gay men are very promiscuous, but you mix promiscuity with a population that doesn’t see a need for protection at a time in history when “free love” was part of the vernacular and you’ve got the perfect combo for a STD who’s symptoms may go unnoticed and undetectable to the human eye(nevermind testing for it) for years. Nevermind the fact that gay sex was not talked about so essentially the entire community was flying blind, with no idea what is safe, sane, or sanitary.
I’m neither a proponent or adversary of gay promiscuity, but I think it’s unfair to view it without context.

Emily K

January 14th, 2008

Where were all the lesbians in this “free love” era? (this is before i was born – AIDS struck when my parents were just married). Were they not promiscuous? Is it because gay men were tired of everyone saying they “can’t” have sex b/c it’s sinful and against nature, that they decided to just hop on the circuits? Were there lesbian circuit parties and clubs? This is part of history I’m stilled baffled by.

Suricou Raven

January 15th, 2008

Lesbians were largely unaffected… their most-practiced sexual acts arn’t nearly so conductive to disease transmission as hetero-vaginal or male-anal sex.

The condom use didn’t occur to me, but it does make sense – it could be a very significent effect.

Ive seen some statistics I would consider sufficiently accurate which show the average number of partners is higher and length of relationship is shorter for male homosexuals than heterosexuals. But its nowhere near the level that anti-gays often exagerate it too. There is a figure that often crops up for the ‘average lifetime number of partners’ for gays is so high, it would be achieveable only be getting two new partners a month, every month, from puberty until death at ninety.

I dont know if the high averages are general, or pushed up by a small number of extremally promiscuous individuals. For the purposes of disease spread, both situations would have the effect of making homosexuals in general at higher risk than the general population.

The situation isn’t as bad as it was though. Im annoyed that the rules for blood donation here havn’t been changed, they still exclude any male who has ever had sex with another man. Even if it was just once, many decades ago. Dispite the availability of a reliable HIV test. Its just a paranoid rule now, that many people disobey because they know its silly.

Timothy Kincaid

January 15th, 2008

There is a figure that often crops up for the ‘average lifetime number of partners’ for gays is so high, it would be achieveable only be getting two new partners a month, every month, from puberty until death at ninety.

One of the participants in the Jones and Yarhouse study reported that he had in excess of 3,000 partners. J&Y defended that claim as being reasonable. That was one of the reasons why I realized that Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse either have very little real understanding of gay people and the gay community or that they are so immersed in the Culture War that they are willing to lay aside any sense of reason and latch onto whatever advances their anti-gay agenda. (There were a couple more who claimed in the thousands).

Assuming that this participant had been sexually active for 30 years, that would be 100 separate sex partners per year or 2 new guys per week, every week for 30 years, no repeats. I’m not saying this guy wasn’t a skank or that he didn’t want 3,000 separate guys, but it seems to me that he is fetishizing his own history.

Even in the age of the internet, that just isn’t believable. Even if you spent every evening in a sex club and you looked like Brad Pitt, you would eventually run out of guys that habituate your den. And let’s face it, folks, if you’ve been living the last 20 years in a sex club, you aren’t going to be so pretty.

But rather than question the validity of this claim, J&Y include him in the study and rely on his answers to support their claims of change. I wonder if they would have relied on the responses from someone who though he was Nero if it supported their position.

Suricou Raven

January 15th, 2008

Three thousand in thirty years… that would be a challenge. It really would be a full-time occupation, and expensive too as there would be a need to pay many of them.

I cant remember exactly what figure I keep seeing, but ive seen the number more than once – at least twice in FRC publications, and a few times on blogs, never with a source given. Its always given as an average lifetime number of partners. I think its just getting passed around the anti-gay community.

LGBT Cancer ally

January 15th, 2008

LGBT cancer at is a source of true information about lgbt people and cancer. A shame that some still think of HIV as a cancer, when LGBT people continue to be diagnosed with real cancers, like those discussed at http:/

Jim Burroway

January 15th, 2008

I’m not aware that anyone thinks there is such a thing as “gay cancer”. The term in this article was put into quotes because at the time that was what it was called colloquially. Nobody knew what was going on, except that an awful lot of people were coming down with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a relatively rare form of skin cancer.

We now know that untreated AIDS can lead to a host of opportunistic infections, K.S. among them. In January 1982, the fears and level of knowledge was very different.

Suricou Raven

January 15th, 2008

Got it!

I was thinking of former Congressman Bill Dannemeyer’s claim that “the average homosexual has 1,000 or more partners in a lifetime.” He never said where he got the number from, but since he said it the figure has been circulating anti-gay campaigns, repeated unquestioningly.

To achieve that… even assuming someone starts sexual activity at the unusually low age of 16, and continues until the unusually high age of 70, its 1.5 partners a month. Achieveable, but difficult. Thats just for the average though – by definition, half of the gay population must have a harder time reaching the target. All of which assumes that every gay person will do their part to push up the figure: If just half of them do not take up the party stereotype, its impossible for the other half to get the average high enough no matter how hard they try.

Jason D

January 15th, 2008

I’ve always found those exaggerated “averages” to be so ridiculous.

At this point in my life, having been out 7 years, and sexually active for just under 2 decades, it still seems ridiculous.
When I was like 25 I remember thinking, “I don’t think I’ve met 100 gay men, let alone 100 I would sleep with who would feel the same way.” –and I live in Chicago, with it’s own gay ghettos and everything!
The only way I think these sorts of stats would be possible is if the person traveled a lot and had absolutely no standards whatsoever. You look around a gay bar, we’re not all pretty(myself included). There are plenty of unattractive and average looking men.
One of the other stereotypes is that we’re exceedingly vain, judgemental, and pretentious about appearance. That doesn’t jibe very well with the notion that we’re getting busy with anything that isn’t nailed down.


January 15th, 2008

I’d like to expand a little on some of the answers to the first post in the thread.

You need to take yourself back to a time when homosexuality wasn’t just stigmatized it was criminal and prosecuted. It was illegal to be homosexual, it was illegal for perceived homosexuals to congregate or be seen together. In cities like NY where many men lived in rooming houses, small tenement apartments, YMCA’s, privacy was scarce. It would have been difficult for two men to become constant companions. While two “spinsters” could live together without raising eyebrows two confirmed bachelors keeping house would lead to suspicions. And suspicions could lead to discovery. The situation wasn’t conducive to monogamy.

Yes, there were some men who did form couples–many where affluent and could afford to create a buffer of privacy around themselves others had the benefit of being able to choose only to associate in professional and social circles where they were tacitly accepted. For most men this wasn’t an option.

When this historical context banged up against the sexual liberation movement a lot of pent up frustration and energy was unleashed. After years of fear and hiding many men saw brazen sexuality as a right and a political statement.

The other factor that contributed to the concentration of AIDS within the gay community lies in the simple fact that being the receptive partner during anal-penile intercourse carries the highest risk for HIV transmission. Very significantly higher than other sexual roles.


January 15th, 2008

I just re-read my post and it dawns on me that it might seem that I disagree with the role that condoms or more specifically the lack of condoms played in the spread of AIDS. Not the case. It was the lack of condoms coupled the wide spread practice of anal intercourse that made the gay community to especially susceptible.

Emily K

January 16th, 2008

Right, I made a comment previously about how gay men must’ve been so sick of ppl saying “no you can’t have sex your form of sex is filthy criminal and against nature” that they just decided to screw anything and anyone. Why is it lesbians weren’t involved in this? One lesbian friend of mine said, “It’s because they have a male sex drive.” and I said, “what proof do you have of this kind of drive?” and she said, “uh, the penis?” I refuse to see it as a simple issue – Is it true homosexual male couples were scarce until recently? why don’t I hear about the lesbians cruising circuits the way gay men did/do?


January 16th, 2008

I profess no expertise in these matters but I would guess there are a number factors that contribute to the differences between how gay men and lesbians express their sexuality.

I do believe there are biological differences–the role of testosterone and other hormones and their role in producing heightened aggression in males. Not for all but for many there is most certainly an element of aggression and competition in the pursuit of sexual satisfaction. The penetrative act itself is viewed by many as an act of aggression–it’s game. Many gay men refer to sex as “play”.

Historical societal expectations I think still inform behavior. Let’s be honest there was always a double standard. Men were always expected to “sow their wild oats” while women were expected to remain demure until it was time to commit. (hence the joke about lesbians renting U-hauls on the second date) Whether we admit it or not elements of that continue to sensitize us in different ways.

Then there are the numbers. There are considerably more gay men than there are lesbians–men have much larger field that they can play. If you don’t find mister right this week you’ll find him next week, but in the meantime there are needs that have to be answered and that guy standing by the bar is awfully cute…

Jason D

January 16th, 2008

“Right, I made a comment previously about how gay men must’ve been so sick of ppl saying “no you can’t have sex your form of sex is filthy criminal and against nature” that they just decided to screw anything and anyone. Why is it lesbians weren’t involved in this? One lesbian friend of mine said, “It’s because they have a male sex drive.” and I said, “what proof do you have of this kind of drive?” and she said, “uh, the penis?” I refuse to see it as a simple issue – Is it true homosexual male couples were scarce until recently? why don’t I hear about the lesbians cruising circuits the way gay men did/do?”

Emily, I think the biological factor exists, but like you, i’m not convinced it’s the overwhelming tide it’s put forth to be.
But do remember something else, we give men permission to be sluts. In fact, to a degree men tend to measure one another by their “conquests”. When I was growing up the stereotype still existed that it was bad for a man to be a virgin, and that getting laid on a regular basis was very important to a “real man”. That didn’t really start to change until I was already in college.
Look at a movie like The 40-Year Old Virgin, a group of men thinks it’s of dire importance that their friend loose his virginity even though he’s barely interested in it.
Meanwhile we have 12 year old girls calling each other “sluts” and “whores” if they talk to boys or even kiss them.

I don’t think that Lesbians lack a sex drive, but I do think they don’t have social pressure to prove they are a “real woman” by going out and getting laid left and right.

I think there was also a lot more pressure on women to get married and have kids, so I think a lot of lesbians might have just gone along with whatever was expected of them.

But, really, I think consulting with an older lesbian or two might give you more insight on it, as I’m just guessing.

Emily K

January 16th, 2008

“If you don’t find mister right this week you’ll find him next week, but in the meantime there are needs that have to be answered and that guy standing by the bar is awfully cute…”

Leo, do numbers give license to promiscuity? “needs to be met”? I guess since I’ve never felt this restless… I dunno, even if that girl at the bar IS kinda cute, it doesn’t mean I wanna get laid that night by her.

Jason D, maybe I should talk to lesbians who’ve actually lived during that time period. I know I wasn’t born yet. Also, there are more gay men, but there are more bisexual women.


January 18th, 2008

do numbers give license to promiscuity?

Hmmm. I’m not qualified to say.

The original question had to do with what behaviors made gay men so susceptible to a sexually transmitted disease while other communities where less affected.

As far as the ethics/morality of said behaviors that’s a bigger and somewhat tougher nut to crack. (And it’s clear by your choice of words you believe there are moral issues at stake here.)

If you’re interested in exploring the issue some books to check into are “The Culture of Desire” by Frank Browning, “The Band Played On” by Randy Shilts (sp?), “The Normal Heart” a play by Larry Kramer, “Virtually Normal” by Andrew Sullivan “A Place At The Table” by Bruce Bawer.

These are works by gay men that touch on sexual ethics and aren’t afraid to ask some tough questions. These men and their work have been widely praised by some and also widely vilified by others. It’s a contentious issue.

Emily K

January 18th, 2008

Thanks for your suggestions, Leo. I like Andrew Sullivan’s column. Sometimes he’s a bit too conservative for my taste (POLITICALLY conservative, not socially conservative) but he’s excellent at what he does. I like books that ask tough questions.

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