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LGBTQ History Month: A Look Back at the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

October 28, 2021

The history of the LGBTQ community is colored with both achievements and adversity. Oftentimes, the former is a result of the latter. The fight against HIV/AIDS, for example, is one of those instances. As we look back on LGBTQ history this month, it’s important to recognize the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic has made on the community.

A Brief History of HIV/AIDS in the United States

In the United States, the first cases of AIDS weren’t reported until 1981. At the time, the LGBTQ community was making great strides in achieving civil rights and the sexual revolution had reached its peak.

Because HIV transmits much more easily through anal sex, men who have sex with men were, and continue to be, disproportionately affected by the virus. So, although they were far from the only ones who contracted the virus, gay AIDS victims were the ones who got the nation’s attention—and as a result, received the brunt of the backlash.

HIV/AIDS quickly became synonymous with the gay community, leading to terms like “gay plague” and perpetuating dangerous myths about the LGBTQ lifestyle. With fear and stigma rampant across the country, and a lack of government response to the virus, the LGBTQ civil rights movement was brought to a screeching halt. Instead, what resulted was increased discrimination, homophobic public health policies and an alarming number of diagnoses and deaths.

Taking matters into their own hands, activists in New York City founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an organization credited with increasing education and awareness of HIV/AIDS (and speeding up the government’s response to the epidemic). Since then, we’ve made tremendous advancements toward eradicating the disease. Prevention, testing and treatment options have improved, general knowledge about HIV/AIDS has increased and the overall stigma has lessened.

Milestones throughout HIV/AIDS History

1981: The first cases of what would later be known as AIDS are reported in the United States.

1982: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) uses the term “AIDS" for the first time and releases the first case definition.

The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in the world, is founded in New York City.

1984: A retrovirus later known as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is found to cause AIDS.

1985: The first commercial blood test for HIV becomes available.

1986: The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses announces that the virus that causes AIDS will officially be known as “Human Immunodeficiency Virus” (HIV).

1987: The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was founded in New York City.

1988: World AIDS Day is observed for the first time on December 1.

1989: The U.S. Congress creates the National Commission on AIDS and the number of reported AIDS cases in the United States reaches 100,000.

1991: The red ribbon becomes the symbol of AIDS awareness.

1992: In the United States, AIDS becomes the leading cause of death among men aged 25 to 44.

1994: AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44.

1995: The National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) launches the first National HIV Testing Day on June 27.

By October 31, 500,000 cases of AIDS are reported in the US.

President Clinton hosts the first White House Conference on HIV/AIDS on December 6.

1996: The number of new AIDS cases diagnosed in the U.S. declines for the first time since the beginning of the epidemic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves:

  • the first HIV home testing and collection kit (May 14)
  • a viral load test, which measures the level of HIV in the blood (June 3)
  • the first HIV urine test (August 6)

1997: The CDC reports that AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. declined by 47% compared to the previous year, the first substantial decline in AIDS deaths in the United States.

1998: The CDC issues the first national HIV treatment guidelines.

2008: “Undetectable equals untransmittable” is affirmed, proving that virally suppressed carriers can’t transmit the virus to HIV-negative individuals.

2012: The FDA approves first drug used for PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) in uninfected adults.

Today, an estimated 13,000 people die of HIV/AIDS in the United States each year. But by spreading awareness, increasing access to testing, and making treatment more affordable, we can work to end the epidemic once and for all.

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