A Brief History of AIDS

“There was a new virus that was killing gay men. Jesus Christ, it could be all over the place by now. God only knew how many people were going to die.”

– Randy Shilts (And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic)

Gay activist David Kirby on his deathbed at his family home in Ohio. Having recently reconciled with his family, Kirby is held by his father, Bill. (Photo by
Therese Frare, courtesy of Time Magazine)

The history of the AIDS Crisis is not an easy history to trace by any means, mainly due to the fact that the epidemic is fragmented in its origins; it is simply not feasible to identify a single individual or even a single community as the sole cause of the global epidemic that has killed more than 35 million over the course of nearly forty years. In researching the origins of the AIDS epidemic, one must ask themselves, “Does a virus’ origin matter more than the forces that lead said virus to reach epidemic levels?” Do we trace the history of the AIDS Crisis from the Belgian-Congolese city of Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), the city that saw then-unknown AIDS emerge at the turn of the 20th century, more than six decades before AIDS would first emerge in the western medical world?1Victoria A. Harden, AIDS at 30: A History (Washington, D.C.: Potomac, 2012), 6. Or is it perhaps more reasonable to look to Gaëtan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant who was long thought to be North America’s “patient zero,” the man who may have spread the virus to hundreds of unwitting men before he himself died of AIDS in 1984? 2Randy Shilts, And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), 21-22. These two examples —one a story of a colonial African metropolis and one a story of a handsome gay Canadian man— illustrate the split nature of the origin story of the AIDS Crisis as we know it today, an epidemic that has ravaged minority groups domestically and globally.

While it is not possible to calculate what exact sources lead AIDS to ravage minority communities across the United States and the world as a whole, it is possible to understand the impact of said forces and the impact of the AIDS Crisis as a whole. The reports on the emergence of strange symptoms in sexually active gay men started in the summer of 1981 as the CDC published reports on a group of five gay men who contracted Pneumocystis pneumonia, a rare, opportunistic lung infection. 3M. S. Gottlieb, “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles,” Morbidity and Morality Report 30, no. 21 (June 5, 1981): , accessed February 19, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/june_5.htm. The editor of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report claimed that this strange outbreak… “suggest[ed] an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population.”4Ibid The medical world was shaken. Young gay men, members of a population that prided and continues today to pride itself today on physical appearance and health, withered away in hospital beds in San Francisco and New York, losing weight and contracting rare opportunistic parasites and viruses.5Lawrence K. Altman, “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS,” The New York Times, July 3, 1981. Cancers like Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a disease that had previously only been linked to older men of Ashkenazi Jewish and Mediterranean descent, grew with worrying speed in the LGBTQ+ community, scarring the immunodeficient with deep purple, bruise-like lesions. 6 Ibid By the end of 1981, 121 gay men had died. 7“The AIDS Epidemic: 1981-1987,” The New York Times, 1999, , accessed February 19, 2018, https://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/science/aids/timeline80-87.html. That number grew to 447 deaths in 1982 and grew still to a staggering 1,476 deaths in 1983. 8 Ibid

It would be easy for one to craft a timeline of the statistics and numbers of the AIDS Crisis and to expand on the facts of the era, but if I were to do so, I ultimately would take away from the overall goal of my project: to provide a platform for others’ voices and stories, to allow myself merely to share the information I have been told. If I were to write at length on the History of the AIDS Crisis, offering opinion and bias, I would detract from my overall goal of impartial arbitration.

While I have provided a basic framework knowledge of the beginnings of the AIDS Crisis, it is crucial that any who take the time view my project in depth look at the primary and secondary sources about the history of the AIDS Crisis.

More statistics on the AIDS Crisis can be found through the CDC’s National Prevention Information Network. The NPIN provides extensive timelines of the AIDS Crisis in the United States from the beginning of the epidemic, and also offers information on the current fight against the domestic and global AIDS epidemic, along with prevention plans for those most at risk of contracting HIV. The NPIN also provides a medical history of the Crisis and describes the science behind how HIV functions. This website provides a more “black-and-white” perspective of the history of the Crisis and is an invaluable resource for any who wish to understand more about AIDS as a disease.

The primary and secondary sources that I found most useful are available under the “Resources” tab of this digital archive. While there are seemingly infinite primary sources on the AIDS Crisis, my research section includes primary sources specific to the cultural research I conducted, and includes images, video, and media that I was able to access through the New York Public Library’s Gay and Lesbian Collections & HIV/AIDS Collections. My research in the archival collections lead me to view private home videos of LGBTQ+ New Yorkers in the final stages of AIDS, posters and placards from ACT UP Protests, and artwork created for the NYPL’s first ever Day Without Art, an annual internationally-honored remembrance day for those lost to AIDS. 9 Access to these archival materials is available through the New York Public Library’s Gay and Lesbian Collections & HIV/AIDS Collections. Materials can be requested online through the previous link and can be accessed in person at the NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

In addition to my primary sources, my secondary sources have shaped greatly the work that I have created. Without background information on the history of the LGBTQ+ community in New York City, historic homophobia in the United States, and the origins of the AIDS virus, I would not be able to share the stories that I have collected thus far. Without providing background information both on the Village and AIDS, my project would not be cohesive and I would be unable to properly craft an online archive on the Cultural Effects of the AIDS Crisis in the LGBTQ+ Community of Greenwich Village. Some of the most influential secondary sources that I have accessed include George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Victoria A. Harden’s AIDS at 30: A History, and John Strasbaugh’s The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (A History of Greenwich Village.) Additionally, the historiographical research focused on the AIDS Crisis that I studied, including work by Jonathan Bell, Darius Bost, and Jennifer Brier, is centered around the fact that AIDS itself is “history in motion,” in the words of Julio Capó Jr. for the Journal of American History.10“Interchange: HIV/AIDS and U.S. History,” Journal of American History 104, no. 2 (September 1, 2017): , doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jax176. These literary sources are just a handful of the many secondary sources that I have relied on in my research, some of which are not focused specifically on AIDS, but rather, provide critical background information for my project. Despite the different lens that these works have provided, all of the included sources have assisted me greatly in my work and are vital tools for my readers in understanding my work and the AIDS Crisis as a whole 11For links to the works mentioned in my bibliography, please look to the “Resources” tab.


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