Sentenced to Death by Silence: The United States Government’s Slow Response to the AIDS Epidemic Permitted by Decades of Homophobia
Abigail R. Fisch
The year is 1955 and America is over half a decade into the Cold War. A closeted gay man had been flying under the radar at his job at the State Department amidst an intense wave of homophobia leading to the sudden firing and blacklisting of gay people in government positions, but his luck was about to run out. Within a year of R.W. Scott Mcleod’s Miscellaneous M Unit being established, he was selected for an interview and polygraph which focused on “unusual traits of speech, appearance, and mannerisms” which would determine if someone was gay (Johnson, 2006, p. 138). Upon failing this test, the man was pressured to provide names of other gay men and forced to resign. After coming home to his wife and children from a day out of his nightmares, he finds out that his son’s middle school had a presentation from the local police department warning them of the dangers of homosexuality, making claims that “1 out of 3 [students] will turn queer”, and that this would make their life “a living hell” (PBS, 2011). This was the reality for many men living in America throughout the 1950s. Amidst the moral panic of the Cold War, fears of unloyal Americans infiltrating the government extended beyond the well studied Red Scare– the fear of the Lavender Menace, the gay man, was treated with more animosity than Communists.
Throughout the 20th century in America, homosexuality was treated as a disease of the mind, an immoral way of living. From 1950s Cold War moral panic up to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the gay community was dehumanized by local and national governments for those three decades. As time went on, homophobia changed the way it presented itself– throughout the 1950s, anti-gay sentiments were spread through a Cold War context, with claims being made that gay people were worse than Communists. As the 1950s ended and the 1960s began, gay men found more of a sense of sexual freedom. Public, casual sex was commonplace and men found it easier to find sexual partners to engage with. This risky way of living had its costs, however, and the religious right’s God-focused morality campaigns were quick to use these habits as a basis for their anti-gay arguments which led right up to the AIDS epidemic. Throughout the 1970s, gay fearmongering took a more religious approach as the rise of the New Right loomed on the horizon. Spearheads for the religious anti-gay movement such as Anita Bryant did not mince words when it came to how they felt about the gay community, as Bryant herself was known to describe gay people as “human garbage” (Ketrow, 1982, p. 6). The 1970s anti-gay movement, while different in its approach, mimicked the intensity of the 1950s Lavender Scare showing how homophobia has long been embedded in American society.
With the AIDS epidemic unknowingly, yet swiftly, approaching, the aforementioned homophobic movements impacted the attitudes surrounding the disease within the government and the American public. As anti-gay movements throughout the 20th century changed from fears of national security in the midcentury to a religious movement in the latter half of the century, the common ground was always the ostracism and dehumanization of members of the gay community. Once the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, nothing showed the effects of decades-long homophobia like the government’s response to the tragedy that afflicted the American people. The lack of funding for AIDS research prior to activist organizations speaking out and Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 shows how the American government and its people did not care about the loss of lives so long as it did not leave the gay community.
This research aims to connect how the homophobic rhetoric from the 1950s leading up to the epidemic of the 1980s affected the American government’s AIDS intervention and will argue that it was because of social norms, gay panic, and homophobia that the government did not intervene in the crisis sooner. The research will also have a focus on the formation of gay activist organizations from the 1950s through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to further prove the main argument that the American Government was able to delay its response to the AIDS epidemic due to the decades of homophobia leading up to the crisis since it was due to pressure from these organizations that the government intervened in the crisis at all.
The research conducted in this paper can also be utilized by social studies educators to teach their students about the homophobic overtones of the Cold War that are often overlooked. It can also be used more contemporarily to teach about Obergefell v. Hodges to help students better understand why the road to the legalization of gay marriage was so tumultuous, and the emergence and impact of grassroots organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front can be taught in civics courses to discuss the importance of community organizations. With homophobia being woven into the fabric of American society, it is important to consider the role it has played in many events in American history.
The Gay Experience throughout the 20th Century
The 1950s into the 60s
In 1950, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy gave a speech in which he claimed 205 Communists had infiltrated the State Department, and that 91 of those Communists were also homosexuals (Johnson, 2006, p. 1). This baseless, inflammatory claim led to the Second Red Scare and along with it, the Lavender Scare. Similar to the blacklisting of Communists, the Lavender Scare led to gay people being outed in their places of work, causing them to lose their jobs and be ostracized from their communities. Throughout the 1950s, any man looking to work for the State Department was subjected to an interview that would determine if he was gay, and the deciding criteria were based upon appearance, mannerisms, and hobbies (Johnson, 2006, p. 73). This obsession with ensuring gay people were not placed in government positions cost countless hours, money, and manpower to uphold and created a stereotypical idea of what a gay man looked like. As the gay witch hunts expanded, panic continued to sweep the nation, and the American government was to blame. Just eight short years after McCarthy’s speech, people applying for non-government jobs found themselves responding to questions regarding their sexual habits (Johnson, 2006, p. 75). Magnified by the senators and government officials calling for the gay purge, fears of gay men entered the mainstream, and children were subjected to homophobic indoctrination in schools.
The language that was used to describe homosexuality throughout the 1950s acted as a dehumanizing agent which would continue into the late 20th century. By describing gay men as “sex perverts” and naming homosexuality a crime, a stereotypical belief about gay men began to emerge (Johnson, 2006, pp. 79-80). Outside of the workplace, local governments and police forces actively worked to make America’s youth fear the gay man. The Unified School District and Police Department of Inglewood, California produced Boys Beware (1955)– a short shown to school-aged children that described gay men as dangerous pedophiles. This film is a blatant form of propaganda created with the intention of instilling homophobic beliefs in the minds of children. Boys Beware follows the fictional stories of young boys who decided to hitch a ride with a stranger instead of walking home after partaking in activities such as baseball and basketball (PBS, 2011). By juxtaposing the all-American white boy, Jimmy, with an untrustworthy older man, Ralph, schools and local governments worked together to instill fear into the minds of young Americans and create a sense of urgency in protecting the purity of the young, straight boy. As the film goes on, Ralph shows Jimmy pornographic photographs, and it is here that he is explicitly called a homosexual, something Boys Beware describes as having a “sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious, a sickness of the mind” (PBS, 2011). What could have been a lesson about why interacting with strangers is dangerous was deliberately written through a homophobic lens. If the actions described in Jimmy’s story were not enough to teach children to be on alert for “predatory” gay men, the Inglewood Police Department ensured that children knew they too would get in trouble for being involved with a homosexual. After Jimmy realized what Ralph was doing, he reported it to his parents who then took it to the police which led to Ralph’s arrest and Jimmy’s probationary release (PBS, 2011). The purpose of Boys Beware was to create connections between “gay” and “danger” in the minds of America’s youth, and fearmongering did not stop there, but rather worsened as the 20th century progressed.
The theme of the 1950s and 60s was that gay people were everywhere, hiding in plain sight. In 1966, Detective John Sorenson of Dade County, Florida gave a speech to a lecture hall full of teenagers warning them to stay alert for the homosexual. In The “Dangers” of Homosexuality, Sorenson warns the teenagers that to be gay is to involve in criminal activity, and that if anyone found themselves involved with a gay person that it would be in their interest to end the relationship quickly (PBS, 2011). Similar to Boys Beware, The “Dangers” of Homosexuality used fearmongering and inflammatory words to blacklist the gay community. Sorenson informed students that they would not get away with being gay, threatened to inform their parents if they were ever to try, and even went so far as to say that their lives would be a living hell if they decided to engage in homosexual activities (PBS, 2011). This language in combination with the criminalization of homosexuality made not only being gay something to fear, but simply interacting with a gay person. While all of this alone would be enough to ostracize the gay community, it was only the beginning of the years of anti-gay sentiments to come.
By the time the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, the American government felt no urgency to react, for homosexuality was deemed criminal behavior throughout the decades leading up to it and was described as something to be feared. By blacklisting gay men throughout the Cold War Lavender Scare and through anti-gay propaganda shown to students throughout the country, an epidemic that disproportionately affected gay men was not viewed as something that required immediate eradication. The calculated planning and anti-gay rhetoric of the 1950s and 60s led to the backlash of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and early 70s.
The 1960s and 70s
The 1960s and 70s were a time of sexual freedom for everyone including gay people despite the blatant homophobia of the previous decades. Casual, public sex was commonplace in gay communities and it offered an opportunity for people who had otherwise not been able to express themselves the chance to do so. Through the popularization of gay bars and cruising as well as the emergence of gay hubs in cities like San Francisco and New York, the gay community was on display more than ever before. This ever-deepening of community amongst gay people also allowed them to be their own advocates, and this self-advocacy would become crucial in the fight against AIDS where the gay community and its allies found themselves standing alone against the rest of the country and those who ran it. Nothing shows the strength and perseverance of the gay community that was founded on these principles of community like the riots at the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969 and the Gay Liberation Movement that followed.
At the end of the 1960s, the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York was raided by the police. New York City Mayor John Lindsay was up for re-election, and a large part of his platform was built upon the promise of more frequent crackdowns on gay bars by the police– another example of how vilified and targeted they gay community was, even at the turning point of gay liberation (Poindexter, 1997, pp. 607-615). While this was a normal occurrence throughout the decade, the bar’s patrons decided enough was enough and they defended themselves against the attack. This riot was the culmination of decades of organization throughout the Homophile Movement and led to what came to be known known as the Gay Liberation Movement. Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) were vocal about their demands and open about being a gay movement, and this openness reflected the attitude of the 1970s gay community– at the Second Annual Southern California Behavior Modification Conference, at least 50 members of the GLF showed up to oppose the advertisement and usage of aversion therapy on gay men (Marston, 1974, p. 380). This power in numbers and straightforward, to-the-point approach to activism is the perfect example of the deep sense of community amongst gay men that allowed for a sense of pride and truthfulness to oneself to exist within the gay community.
While the late 1960s into the 70s was not a shameful time within the gay community, the religious right was watching from afar and building their arguments against them. The New Right’s qualms with the gay community differed from those of the 1950s and early 60s– rather than fears of gay people infiltrating the government and tarnishing the image of America, this group angled their attacks from a religious and moral standpoint. Upon the 1973 ruling that homosexuality was no longer to be considered abnormal in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the conservative American population was fed up. Many feared the implications this would have on their children, so anti-gay activists fought from a religious point of view, and Anita Bryant, Christian singer and anti-gay activist, fronted the movement with pride (Bronski, 2020, p. 279).
In 1977, Bryant and her Christian group Save Our Children (SOC) got to work fighting non-discrimination laws in Dade County, Florida which called for housing and job protection for gay people. Her celebrity status in combination with her voracious hatred for gays that she presented in a good Christian package put her organization in the media spotlight which led to the spread of her hateful ideas. The public took a liking to Bryant’s religious angle after what many religious conservatives felt was a decade of immorality in the 1960s, and their attacks on the gay community were just as militant as those of the gay activist organizations of the decade. Bryant’s campaign successfully tapped into this market by claiming that “homosexuals posed a threat to children and they were not deserving of so-called “privileges”, like employment” and built on the long-held stereotype of homosexuals being pedophiles (Graves, 2013, p. 5).
With her ideologies being spread in the print media, Bryant’s SOC campaign gained support all throughout the country, and the news outlets in favor of her ideologies used language that left no questions to be asked regarding how they felt about the gay community. From insinuating that the “choice” of homosexuality would influence children in schools to turn gay from “sustained exposure to homosexual role models, such as teachers”, these sentiments of the 1970s only echo those of the 1950s and 1960s campaigns targeted to students stating that gay people are everywhere and they are out to take advantage of children (Ketrow, 1983, p. 8). This hateful belief system did not come out of thin air, and Save Our Children offered a glimpse into how America would respond to the AIDS epidemic.
The Response to AIDS
Early Years and the General Public
With the diagnosis of the first cases of AIDS in America coming shortly after Anita Bryant’s vicious attacks on the gay community, the immediate connection of AIDS and homosexuality proved to be detrimental. Originally named Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) in 1981, there was little press coverage and care from public health offices Brier, 2006, p. 41). As the epidemic loomed on the horizon, even from its early days, the biggest advocates for containment and research were members of the gay community and their allies. This largely has to due with the fact that AIDS was originally marketed as a “gay disease” or the “Gay Plague” before much research was ever conducted. This connotation paved the path for gay activists to advocate for the community amidst the epidemic, and this early activist intervention would prove itself necessary in the coming years as the government continued to stay silent on the topic of AIDS and because of the average American’s attitude towards the epidemic.
With the buildup of homophobic rhetoric from 1950 and beyond, the general consensus amongst straight Americans regarding the AIDS epidemic was that it did not concern them because it did not affect them. As well as this, a smaller portion of Americans “saw AIDS as a form of divine or natural retribution” for homosexuality as early as 1983 (Cannon, 2020, p. 1). This attitude shared by many Americans was only intensified by the lack of response from the American Government, and many gay men felt that they were more vulnerable than they ever had been before.
Over half a decade into the epidemic, a study was conducted regarding the feelings of gay men in America. This study found that “almost one-fifth of the sample claimed to have experienced discrimination “specifically as a result of AIDS” and that over ninety percent of respondents felt there was an increase in homophobia because of AIDS (Stulberg and Smith, 1988, p. 279). This research publised in 1988 shows how gay men were affected by the attitudes of straight people in America throughout the AIDS epidemic. This shows how tying AIDS to the gay community had severe implications on the lives of gay men. Over seventy nine percent of respondents to the aforementioned study also felt fearful that an increase in violence would also occur in relation to the epidemic (Stulberg and Smith, 1988, p. 279). The psychological impact of homophobia on members of the gay community mimicked that of the 1950s and beyond, for just as being gay throughout the Lavender Scare would cost men their jobs and livelihoods, gay men were, and continue to be, fearful of discussing their AIDS diagnosis because “they could lose their friends, their family, their job” (Lobertini, 2011, p. 1). The patterns of homophobia in American society culminated with the lack of concern from the American public during the AIDS epidemic, and that created an environment which allowed the government to delay their harm reduction efforts. While grassroots organizations began the fight to combat the epidemic and call on their government to aid their efforts, the Reagan administration could not be less concerned about the timeliness of its response.
The Reagan Administration
The Reagan administration wanted nothing to do with the AIDS epidemic in its early days. With its immediate connotation with the gay community due to its being named GRID, there was no urgency for the government to act due to the American public’s attitude towards gay people from the decades of homophobic rhetoric that led up to the epidemic. President Ronald Reagan himself as well as members of his administration held intense homophobic beliefs as expressed by Reagan’s Assistant Attorney General Richard Willard when he stated that “HIV-positive people were seeking out employers to become eligible for their generous health, disability, and death benefits” (Bell, 2020, p. 182). Willard’s belief that gay people were just looking to leach off of private companies for their benefits mirrors the beliefs held about gay people in the 1950s– the thought that there is always another agenda involved when it comes to gay people, whether they are looking to share government secrets or steal health benefits, has long been believed government officials. To many, gay people have no innocence as exhibited by Willard’s sentiments. These feelings were all but praised by President Reagan through his lack of involvement in epidemic research. The President “did not sign a document dealing with AIDS until the end of 1985, did not mention the term “AIDS” in public until 1986, and spent very little money on researching the epidemic” and many scholars argue that this is because of his allegiances to the New Right and their distaste for the progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s (Brier, 2009, p. 101). By actively not speaking out about the epidemic in public, it only solidified the beliefs of the American public, for if their own president was not making a big deal out of the deadly virus, then why should they? After all, this virus was seemingly only attacking the people who were publicly vilified for decades, so there was no real reason to fuss. However, even after AIDS was found to affect those outside of the gay community, the Reagan Administration still found ways to continue tying it to homosexuality. As time progressed, AIDS began affecting the lives of straight people. Rather than looking for ways to combat AIDS, the Reagan Administration took a more sinister path, and at the expense of more lives, whether gay or straight, the movement to end AIDS was still nowhere to be found. In the same year as the American Foundation for AIDS Research address, President Reagan echoed feelings that could be dated back to the 1950s– when discussing immigration policy in relation to the AIDS epidemic, Reagan suggested “that AIDS, like communism, needed to be physically prevented from entering the country” (Brier, 2009, p. 103). Amidst a deadly epidemic, the President still found a way to connect homosexuality to communism which only shows how little the loss of American lives concerned him when those lives were mainly gay. Even with pushes from the Public Health Service (PHS) and other health and activist organizations, the Reagan Administration had its own idea of how to handle AIDS.
As they had at the beginning of the epidemic, gay activist groups such as ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and Project Inform continued to act as the voices for those who no longer had theirs after losing their battle against AIDS, and for those who were still fighting. As President Reagan proved himself incapable of protecting the American people due to his homophobic beliefs, the aforementioned grassroots organizations and others not only put the pressure on him but other organizations as well. ACT UP, although formed late into the AIDS epidemic in 1987, was instrumental in organizing protests and getting the attention of the President and his administration. In the year of their formation, they “held a “die-in” in front of Trinity Church(…) in Manhattan” and called for Reagan to take a definitive stand in the fight against AIDS (Brier, 2009, p. 181). Even neutral organizations such as PHS tried to use scientific reasoning with President Reagan and his advisees, yet Reagan’s idea of “educating” the public consisted of vilifying a group of people who were dying en masse every single day, all to maintain the ideal Christian, Conservative way of living to please themselves and the American public.
Homophobia is still deeply ingrained in American society today, and AIDS continues to disproportionately affect the gay community as compared to other groups. One can only wonder if the decades of homophobia from the mid-century onwards in combination with the deliberate connotation of AIDS with homosexuality had not impacted American’s attitudes towards the virus if this fact would still be true. There is no denying the impact of homophobia on the government’s response to the epidemic, nor can one deny that straight America did not worry about AIDS until it began to affect them, and the path for these beliefs was paved by the homophobic indoctrination of the American people that came decades before AIDS ever came into existence.
As social studies educators, it is crucial to examine historical events through different lenses. By focusing on the patterns of homophobia leading up to the AIDS epidemic, it can offer further insight into why it was as deadly as it was and what exactly paved the path to allow for such a thing to occur. This frame of thinking can also allow students to better understand the gravity of events they are far removed from due to time passed by explaining the impact of occurrences throughout history chronologically, not only related to this research, but also when teaching other historical events. This research specifically can be tied to many contemporary issues such as Obergefell v. Hodges, the American response to COVID-19, and the importance of grassroots organizations in politics. It can also change the way topics that are standard in most curriculums, such as the Cold War, are taught by focusing on the homophobia that played a crucial role in shaping the attitudes of Americans towards gay people. By understanding America’s shameful attitudes towards queer communities in the past, it can lead to the current generation making great changes.
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