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“The Gay Plague:” Barriers to Healthcare for Queer People with HIV/AIDS

“It was like a 'Twilight Zone' episode where everyone in town just starts disappearing (1).” This is a quote by Mark. S King, a gay man who witnessed the HIV/AIDS epidemic during times of political dysfunction and injustice. During the mid-1980s, a time of mullets and leg warmers for some, was incredibly traumatizing and life-changing for others, specifically for queer populations.


In the late 1970’s, HIV began to spread rampantly through the United States and disproportionately affected sexually active gay and bisexual men. While many others outside of these groups were affected, the large proportion of queer men contracting the virus led to increased homophobia and injustice in media and politics. Politicians, actors and singers began expressing homophobic comments, coining the term ‘gay plague (2).’ These influencers’ views spread to modern-day society as well, creating unsafe environments for queer people across the United States.

Pexels (2020). Man Wearing Red Ribbon. Photograph, Anna Shvets.


Tens of thousands of queer men began disappearing, whether it was due to sickness and death from HIV/AIDS or hiding in the shadows of heterosexuality. While there have definitely been improvements in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, queer populations are still disproportionally affected by the virus, specifically gay Black and Latino men.


The barriers that exist for treatment today cannot be discussed individually, rather, they must be discussed on the basis of intersectionality. There is no one reason why gay Black and Latino men are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, it is the addition of intersecting factors like race and class that equate to the disadvantages in treatment and care.


Black and Latinx populations have extremely high poverty rates, 18.8% and 15.7% respectively (3). The large poverty rate stems from systemic oppression, specifically due to a process called ‘redlining,’ where lawmakers would choose who to provide mortgages to based on race. Essentially, marginalized communities were pushed to urban areas while White populations lived in the suburbs (4). These White-dominated areas were funded; fancy schools and shops were built while urban areas where Black people resided were not. This led to Black neighbourhoods being underfunded resulting in horrible living conditions and a lower overall household income, which led to increased crime rates and police violence.


Not only were crime rates extremely high, but the rates of STI transmission were high as well. The lack of funding in neighbourhoods and discrimination in employment opportunities resulted in many queer people turning to sex work to make money (5). HIV transmission became increasingly rampant in the sex work industry, further showing how low socio-economic status and systemic oppression collided to impair the lives of marginalized queer people.


While we cannot change current systems and systemic oppression, we must support and encourage queer people to get tested. Encouraging people to get tested and destigmatizing the beliefs and homophobia around it is the only way we can support queer populations beyond conversations and advocacy. Reflecting on the past and learning from these mistakes can help foster a more accessible approach to medicine for queer people, free from the chains of discrimination and oppression.


References

  1. Brammer JP. LGBTQ History Month: The early days of America's AIDS crisis. NBC News [Internet]. 2018 Oct [cited 2022 Jan 24]. Available from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-history-month-early-days-america-s-aids-crisis-n919701

  2. Brammer JP. Three decades later, men who survived the 'gay plague' speak out. NBC News [Internet]. 2017 Dec [cited 2022 Jan 24]. Available from https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/three-decades-later-men-who-survived-gay-plague-speak-out-n825621

  3. Myhre J, Sifris D. Health Disparities in HIV: Understanding Why Some Communities Are at High Risk. Verywell Health [Internet]. 2021 Oct [cited 2022 Jan 24]. Available from https://www.verywellhealth.com/health-disparities-in-hiv-5204764

  4. Gross T. A 'Forgotten History' Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America. NPR [Internet]. 2017 May[cited 2022 Jan 24]. Available from https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america

  5. How HIV Impacts LGBTQ People. Human Rights Campaign [Internet]. [cited 2022 Jan 24]. Available from https://www.hrc.org/resources/hrc-issue-brief-hiv-aids-and-the-lgbt-community


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