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Transmitting the Problem

How America made AIDS a heterosexual disease

By Kim Stephenson

For a number of years HIV/AIDS has been presented as an equal opportunity destroyer that is thwarted by condom use for every type of sexual encounter and a clean syringe for every intravenous drug use. Through a high-powered media campaign America has repeatedly received the message that “AIDS does not discriminate.” Locally, we have seen the image of a middle class white woman with the ominous tag line of the sponsoring agency, The Cascade AIDS Project, below : “IT’S NOT OVER.” The subtext clearly reading: "Beware white, heterosexual America!”

Yet statistics and scientific studies concerning the transmission of HIV/AIDS say otherwise. Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of AIDS and the demographics have roughly remained the same throughout the two decades: The disease affects mostly men (93 percent in Oregon) and mostly white gay men. To say this is considered to be homophobic, and therein lies the problem.

The campaign making AIDS everyone’s problem was a public relations event that was a desperate response to the disinterest and prejudices of the American public and government. The disinterest was to such an extent virtually no prevention or research dollars could be approved. After all, fags and junkies were dying, who cared?

In the mid-1980s, when the “AIDS Does Not Discriminate” campaign began, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was aware HIV was not spreading heterosexually. Now, as in the past 20 years, AIDS has remained confined to homosexual men, intravenous drug users and their sex partners. Then, as now, the chances of heterosexual transmission through one sexual encounter is lower than the risk of being struck by lightning. To understand why our public health and AIDS organizations have mislead us, you need to look at the social environment in which AIDS was born.

Just eight years prior to the first cases of what will be defined as AIDS, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. In December of 1973 the Association declared that “homosexuals were able to function effectively in society, and when they sought treatment, it was for reasons other than their homosexuality.” The “Gay Liberation Movement” was in its infancy and young Americans of all persuasions were enjoying sexual freedom.

In June 1981, the CDC reported on “five young men, all active homosexuals” who had turned up in Los Angeles hospitals with a rare lung infection called pneumocystis carinii. A month later the CDC reported on 26 cases of young gay men diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare skin cancer. Kaposi’s sarcoma is characterized by bluish-red nodules on the skin, usually on the lower extremities, that is endemic to equatorial Africa. These are thought to be the first cases of AIDS. Although the diseases were previously known, they were thought to point to an immune deficiency, which will soon be defined as AIDS.

Another deadly agent made himself known that very same year: Ronald Reagan. Reagan and his conservative administration set-up house in 1981 and remained throughout the next crucial decade. Deaths rapidly increased and there was widespread panic. No one knew how the disease was being transmitted. Top health officials were trying wildly to retain funding for research into AIDS but Reagan and his administration refused to utter the word AIDS let alone give it a dime.

AIDS became moral politics. Reagan’s domestic policy staff thought a discussion of AIDS would involve debates over sexual practices and drug use and therefore it would alienate mainstream voters. Religious conservatives held signs saying “Praise God for AIDS” and public health officials made remarks to reporters like “Why are you making such a big deal of it? If it kills a few of them, society will be better for it.”

Top health officials at the Centers for Disease Control knew the way to battle the disease was to target the populations hardest hit, but all AIDS material had to be cleared by the Reagan White House and they refused “pro-condom” messages on moral grounds.

The CDC then hired a high-powered advertising agency to receive advice on how best to market a prevention and education program. The advertising giant Ogilvy and Mather ran focus groups in several cities to gauge American attitudes toward AIDS. The results proved what gay activists already knew: Americans thought AIDS was someone else’s problem, that it was a disease that affected gay men and drug users and therefore they were not concerned. A Gallup Poll at the time showed one half of America thought AIDS was a punishment for moral decline and one fourth of Americans thought employers had the right to fire employees thought to have AIDS.

The CDC wanted to get people talking about AIDS and reduce the stigma. After much debate and in-fighting, the CDC decided their best bet was to present AIDS as everyone’s problem and so began the concerted effort making AIDS a heterosexual problem. Dr. Walter Cowdle, a CDC virologist and veteran of the war on herpes, at first fought for a targeted campaign but was beaten down by the Reagan administration and his CDC colleagues. “As long as this was seen as a gay disease or, even worse, a disease of drug abusers, that pushed the disease way down the ladder of peopleís priorities,” he said.

Randy Shilts, a journalist who has since died of AIDS, told a reporter about the heterosexual shift: “A lot of gay men in AIDS organizations have spent years watching friends and lovers die,” and were convinced that research money was not available because AIDS was not perceived to be a general threat. He said there was a “concerted effort to create a heterosexual panic by gays, public health officials and scientists who want research dollars.”

The CDC’s award-winning campaign to democratize AIDS was launched in October of 1987 and featured 38 television spots, eight radio announcements and six print ads. The first ads focused on the universality of the disease and steered clear of specific transmission information. The campaign was highly effective. As a Wall Street Journal article says: “Millions of people were thus sold and resold on the message: Though AIDS started in the homosexual population, it was inexorably spreading, stalking high school students, middle-class housewives, doctors, dentists and even their unwitting patients.”

In 1991 Magic Johnson gave the heterosexual scare a boost when he announced he had acquired AIDS through promiscuous heterosexual behavior. (A dream come true for American moralists!) Mainstream talk shows and magazines, especially women’s magazines, pursued the subject relentlessly. Meanwhile, the CDC itself was producing research that made it clear the heterosexual fears were exaggerated. Some CDC scientists tried once again to refocus the AIDS campaign toward those most in need, but were drowned out by the mass media campaign.

The CDC well knew the images it represented in the media campaign were a misleading impression about who was likely to get the disease. The blonde middle-aged woman in the brochure was an intravenous drug user but was not identified as such. The television spot starring the morally elevated Baptist minister’s son who said: “If I can get AIDS, anyone can,” did not mention he was gay.

This sort of omission of information and misrepresentation continues to this day. Now that AIDS is a politically correct universal problem, billions of dollars are flowing, hence everyone in the “business” is invested in the propaganda. But as an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal points out, “AIDS Fight is Skewed by Federal Campaign Exaggerating Risks” (May 1, 1990) the shift in focus has created a perverse effect: Dollars are not necessarily going where they are needed.

Also new discriminations are unjustly created, like presenting female prostitutes as the AIDS assassins, even though the odds are about one to 8,000 of female-to-male transmission. Similar to the conclusion of the The Alliance article last month about AIDS in Africa, the intentional misleading campaign to make AIDS a heterosexual problem is not helping the thousands of Americans who are suffering from immune system destruction (AIDS).

Kim Stephenson is a freelance writer who has written extensively on AIDS as a professional reporter and editor in the gay and lesbian press since 1995.

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