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The birth of the ‘gay plague’ myth

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In the first part of our new series Noel Halifax looks at how Aids was used to push homophobia
Issue 2256

It started as an unknown illness, first noticed in New York around 1979 and 1980 in a community that generally took care of its health: gay men.

The media called it “gay cancer” and then “gay plague”. Medics at first called it GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency).

We now know that this was the HIV virus—a virus passed on by the exchange of bodily fluids, specifically blood, semen and vaginal fluids.

It has since been discovered that it has been around for some time.

It was found in the corpse of a British sailor who had died in the 1920s, for example.

But at the time, the condition seemed new, untreatable and without any known cause.

And because it was first observed in gay men, it became the basis of a wave of an anti-gay backlash so harsh that it is difficult to believe today.

“GRID” arrived in Britain in 1981.

Even though by then it had been renamed Aids, the media stuck to names like “gay plague” and “the gay killer bug”.

It whipped up a wave of fear and hatred against gay people.

This became a full-scale assault on the gains and the acceptance of difference that had been won in the 1960s and 1970s.

Homosexuality had only been decriminalised 14 years before—and it was less than a decade since the NHS had stopped classifying being gay as an “illness”.

Now the rights that people had fought for were at risk of being rolled back.

This was happening against a background of right wing victories, from Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 to the defeat of the miners in 1985.

As there was no known cause or cure, the media spread the idea that Aids could be passed on in the air—or by kissing, or touching, or just being near a gay person.

They kept spreading these myths long after they were proven to be untrue.

Aids was said to be the “revenge of god”, the product of “permissiveness”—the result of accepting homosexuality and rejecting “traditional family values”.

This scapegoating of gays became lethal. By the mid-1980s there was an average of two killings a week in “queer-bashing” attacks. Gangs laid in wait outside gay clubs.

Public opinion polls showed that over 60 percent believed that gays and lesbians should be barred from teaching—or having any contact with children.

Funeral directors refused to handle anyone who had died of Aids, or even anyone who was known to be gay.

Socialist Workers Party branches found meetings cancelled by pubs or halls if they tried to hold a meeting on the subject.

Even the unions fell prey to the panic. The Fire Brigades Union in 1985 advised its members not to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to anyone they suspected might be infected—and stated members would no longer carry out any safety inspections of gay clubs.

How far the frenzy went would seem unbelievable to many young people today.

In 1985, Tory health minister Kenneth Clarke enacted powers to detain people with Aids in hospital against their will. The media talked of opening camps for the infected—and people “suspected” of being infected.

The first World Aids Day was held in 1988. But the Princess Royal opened it by saying that the “real tragedy” was the “innocent victims”— “people who have been infected unknowingly, perhaps as a result of a blood transfusion”.

She didn’t include gay people in that category.

That same year, the infamous Section 28 was made law in Britain. It banned the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools.

This set the tone for homophobic and transphobic bullying right through to the present day. It damaged generations by forbidding openness about sexuality.

But the anti-gay backlash did not go unopposed.

It was in the height of the backlash that Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners won the NUM miners’ union to supporting gay rights.

The fight for gay rights continued inside the trade unions and won TUC support in 1985.

Meanwhile, in LGBT communities a new movement grew up to fight the attacks—with the birth of ACT-UP, AIDS-Coalition, Queer Nation, Rainbow Coalition and the battle against Section 28.

In the next column I will look at how this fight grew and developed over the next decade.


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