OVERVIEW

The AIDS crisis of the 1980s was a terrifying time for many individuals, from politicians to scientists to victims of the illness itself. It started out as a mysterious illness which began to plague innocent victims without any foreseeable cure, a cure which is yet to be found to this day, and ended up as an epidemic. The disease, which bore several names, breaks down the immune system of the person infected, leaving them vulnerable to death by even the common cold. Unfortunately, the first cases of AIDS, or auto immunodeficiency syndrome were found in the gay community of the United States (primarily), which is where it remained for several years, at least in the public eye. In fact, it first came into the general public’s knowledge in 1981, when the New York Times published an article about forty-one gay men who died from a then unknown illness[1]. Unfortunately, the prominence of the illness among gay men led the mainstream printed press to hone in on the victims’ sexual orientation, rather than the crucial facts and information regarding the illness itself. The press demonized gay men through blame and scapegoating, naming the gay community as the source, i.e. the cause of the epidemic. To clarify, demonization is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the act of portraying a person or thing as wicked and threatening, esp. in an inaccurate or misrepresentative way”[2].

Gay men were demonized by means of propaganda. Propaganda is the systematic (continual and strategic) sending of self-interested messages (messages favoring the party sending them) in order to alter the attitude of their audience. In this case the messengers would be the mainstream printed press and their audience would be their readers, who were, for the majority, heterosexual.  The message sent by the mainstream press in the 1980s was that AIDS was a ‘gay disease’, most likely in order to calm the public and defame the gay community, which was no accepted at the time. At first, AIDS was named a ‘gay plague’, even named in some papers as GRID, or “gay-related immunodeficiency”1, and as such, many ideas about the nature of gay men and the LGBT community were propagated, from messages of hatred to the idea that gay men were promiscuous and diseased. It is important to note that before the AIDS crisis was addressed by the mainstream media, it was largely ignored; Only 11 front-page articles had been written about gays or lesbians in 1981 and only 13 were written in 1982 and none of them discussed AIDS- only one front page article mentioned AIDS in 1983[3]. However, when it was addressed, it often implied or explicitly stated that gay men were the cause of the disease, and that AIDS was a punishment for being gay. This is an example of scapegoating and blame, the main propaganda techniques used in the news coverage of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s.

CORE CONCEPTS

From the very beginning of the disease’s incorporation into mainstream media, it was immediately associated with the LGBT community. In fact, as stated previously, the very first article about the illness was specifically about forty-one gay men who died from a “rare cancer”1. The news stories framed their narratives around the idea that it mainly affected the gay community, and focused more on this than on the medical aspects of the illness. The media made a strategic effort to isolate the disease to the gay community, and portray the straight population as safe from harm[4]. It was an epidemic, meaning that it infected a significant number of people, so the medical information of the illness would have been of great use to the public, but instead the press honed in on the fact that many victims of AIDS were gay. Going further than just describing the sexual orientation of the victims, the press “framed [AIDS] as a universal problem perpetuated by gay men”5. The deadly nature of the disease meant that gay men were demonized for spreading a tragic illness, which is a serious conviction. By framing the illness as something perpetuated by a specific group, the press is deflecting responsibility from everyone else. This way, the public cannot blame politicians, hospitals, doctors, or immigration control for having let the disease loose among America’s citizens.

In addition to framing the disease as a ‘gay plague’, the mainstream media press also implied, or explicitly stated that the disease was a punishment for a person’s homosexuality, and that homosexuality was immoral. The LGBT community definitely was not largely accepted in United States in the 1980s, given that it is only gaining acceptable currently, in the early 2000s, twenty years later. AIDS was a punishment for being gay in the eyes of many, and it was portrayed in this manner by the media; it was a consequence for ‘transgressive’ behavior5. The first reports on the illness were plagued by stories meant ‘moralize’ their audience[5] (see figure 1). Through these stories, the news media was associating the gay community with disease. The narratives media “included a heavy dose of homophobic sensationalism… their hysteria reflected and reinforced discourses that equated homosexuality and homosexuals with disease and perversion”5. By equating homosexuality with disease, the press was not only providing false information about the possible scope of the disease, but they were also hurting the image of gay men in the eyes of the public. They were teaching their readers that being gay is wrong, and furthermore, that it could have deadly consequences. An article in the Observer-Reporter, which describes a clergyman who blames gay men for having AIDS because of their sexuality (see figure 1); the article does not outright disclaim this argument and publishing articles such as this places more blame on victims of AIDS.

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Figure 1. Article from Observer-Reporter, January 18, 1986[6]

The isolation in the press of AIDS to gay men, they were scapegoating them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines scapegoating as “the action or practice of making a scapegoat of someone”[7] and a scapegoat is defined as “one who is blamed or punished for the sins of others”[8]. The gay community was blamed for the AIDS epidemic and it spreading in the United States, which cannot be blamed on one specific individual. For example, an article in the Australian magazine Quadrant blamed gay men for the spread of the disease outright and argued this point deliberately8. This blame hurt the gay community, there is no doubt. For example, magazines such as Life made gay men into villains- they always referred to them as ‘homosexuals’[9], and newspapers suggested that gay men were promiscuous8. Another example is an article in the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1980s wrote about publicized the view that people who donated blood and later tested positive for AIDS face capital punishment[10]. An article featured in The Daily Gazette is a prime example (see figure 2). The article describes a man who was nearly evicted from his home; no doubt media portrays of people with AIDS did not help him.

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Figure 2. Article from The Daily Gazette, July 19, 1990[11].

This illustrates the devastating effect these media outlets had on society’s perceptions of the gay community; they were demonized into criminals, when they were actually victims infected by a horrifying illness. Their behavior likely deferred research on the epidemic, which could have helped a cure to have been found sooner.

In addition to deflecting blame for the disease, naming gay people as those who had the disease and deflected the fear of readers. AIDS is extremely serious and life-threatening, so suggesting that it could affect any and every one would understandably strike a great deal of fear in the hearts and minds of readers. It is likely that the press was trying to avoid a public panic. The (straight) press isolated themselves away from the gay community. “The us versus them dichotomy was prevalent, which set the stage for AIDS to be depicted as ‘gay plague’”3(100). This way, they further separated themselves from the disease, and from any responsibility for it. This strategy of avoiding a public panic provided a false sense of security to the heterosexual public, who likely believed that they could not be affected by AIDS3; this is an extremely dangerous assumption, considering how seriously detrimental AIDS is to a person’s health.

EXAMPLES

Printed press was a crucial source of information in the 1980s. There was no internet, so therefore the printed news was the main if not the only source of ‘credible’ news information. Although the AIDS epidemic was ignored, as previously stated, it did receive more attention years after it became a more serious problem. Writing on the AIDS epidemic is indicative the homophobic themes and scapegoating strategies discusses earlier in this writing.

One example of this blaming is clearly present in an article which is discussed a great deal in literature about the news reporting of the AIDS crisis, and that is one of the first articles about AIDS published in the New York Times (see figure 3). The article is titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”, a title which immediately points to the gay community exclusively in conjunction with the illness, unknown at the time[12]. The article further propagates this idea when the author states that “Cancer is not believed to be contagious, but conditions that precipitate it… might account for an outbreak among a single group”9, meaning that it is only present in the gay community. There are no quotes in the article from people who had the illness, the author either ignoring their testimony or failing to make any attempt to hear their side of the story. This article plainly states that “there was no apparent danger to nonhomosexuals from contagion”9, isolating the ‘homosexuals’ from the rest of society. This is characteristic of scapegoating, where one group is targeted and isolated.

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Figure 3. First Article in New York Times referencing what would later be known as AIDS[13]

On April 25th of 1986, The National Review published an article titled “Gay Rage”[14] which describes a law passed in the city of New York providing protections for gay individuals against discrimination and the article also discusses the AIDS crisis. The article openly and aggressively attacks gay people, describing them as ‘bizarre’. The author states that “you need not know that a person is gay unless he, or she, tells you so, or indulges in bizarre behavior that calls attention to gayness”10. This is plainly discrimination in and of itself. The article discusses the AIDS crisis, but the wording of the article unmistakably points to gay men as the reason for the epidemic. The author states that that “the magnitude of the AIDS problem is now enormous… The gay populations of New York, San Francisco, and Houston are saturated with AIDS exposure… the AIDS epidemic shows signs of breaking out into the straight population”10, implying that gay men are the source of the epidemic. The author is utilizing blaming to demonize the innocent victims of AIDS. The author also uses generalizations about the gay populations in these cities, rather than citing facts about how many people are infected in these cities. Absence of verifiable facts is characteristic of propaganda. This is similar to the Life magazine article titled “Now No One is Safe from AIDS” (see figure 5), which implies that the disease was isolated and then suddenly is affecting the straight population[15].

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Figure 4. Article from The National Review titled “Gay Rage”12

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Figure 5. Life magazine cover referencing the AIDS crisis.13

CONCLUSION

The demonization which the gay community was subjected to during the 1980s only fits into a historical trend of certain groups being scapegoated; this occurred famously with the unfair depictions of the Jews by the Nazis in order to find a scapegoat for economic unrest in post-World War I Germany. This type of propaganda, while it may be discredited years after it is published, still enforced stereotypes about that group and has a lasting impact on their experience. In this case, gay men were stereotyped as promiscuous and diseased. The news reporting on the AIDS crisis focused more on the fact that the patients with gay than on the medical facets of the illness, taking attention away from where it should have been focused, on raising awareness about its seriousness and bringing support for finding a cure. The lagging efforts in research and attention to how to prevent the disease could have arguable been responsible for many deaths, in the gay community and beyond, and it gave a slow start to research. There is still no cure for AIDS, and this could be linked to the lack thereof and this slow start. In addition, the AIDS crisis have likely left resounding and painful emotions in the gay community and beyond, because of how the victims were treated and the negative attention they received. This type of demonization leaves only pain, isolation, and slows advancements in society, like that of research of the deadly and ever present auto immunodeficiency syndrome.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

The following questions could be used a follow-up to the previous writing:

  1. How does this demonization affect a broad community? For example, a neighborhood, a school, etc.
  2. Does this demonization have a greater immediate effect on others than just the specific group it is targeting?
  3. Does the type of demonizing described above still exist towards the gay community? More specifically, are they stereotyped and isolated in a similar fashion?
  4. How do you think that the gay community was affected by this demonization? How do you think if affects them today?
  5. How is it possible that mainstream media openly targeted the gay community without significant backlash against them? Was it just the historical context, or does it go beyond that?

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information on this demonization, there are several resources available for review. An article in The Atlantic was recently written which discusses the type of reporting during the AIDS crisis, which gives a modern perspective on news reporting during the time. Time wrote a recent article about the very first article ever written on the AIDS crisis. There was a film created about the AIDS crisis, and it includes information about the news reporting, on television and otherwise during the late 1980s. The film is titled How to Survive a Plague. The New York Times has a web page listing a number of articles written on the AIDS crisis, all from the 1980s, specifically from 1981 to 1987. A website with an article titled “Here’s 35 Years of Headlines on the AIDS Epidemic” including many examples of headlines which emulate the issues discusses in the writing above.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Rimmerman, C.A. (2014). The Lesbian and Gay Movements: Assimilation or Liberation?. New York: Westview Press. Page=37

[2] Demonization. (2014). In Oxford English dictionary online (2nd ed.), Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/49819?redirectedFrom=demonization#eid

[3] Chomsky, D. & Barlcay, S. (2013). The Editor, the Publisher, and His Mother: The Representation of Lesbians and Gays in the New York Times. Journal of Homosexuality, 60(10), 1389. doi: 10.1080/00918369.2013.819196

[4] Castañeda, L., & Campbell, S. (Eds.). (2006). News and Sexuality- Media Portraits of Diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

[5] Gould, D. B. (2009). Moving Politics: Emotion and Act Up’s Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] (1986, January 18). Observer-Reporter. Cleric Says AIDS Shows God Unhappy With Gays. Retrieved from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2519&dat=19860118&id=RTdiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1XYNAAAAIBAJ&pg=5996,2178280&hl=en

[7] Scapegoating. (1982). In Oxford English dictionary online (2nd ed.), Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/171948?redirectedFrom=scapegoating#eid.

[8] Scapegoat. (1982). In Oxford English dictionary online (2nd ed.), Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/171946?rskey=hQGdWQ&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid

[9] Streitmatter, R. (2009). From “Perverts” to “Fab Five”: The Media’s Changing Depiction of Gay Men and Lesbians. New York, NY: Routledge. Page=60

[10] Robinson, P., & Geldens, P. (2014). Stories from two generations of gay men living in the midst of HIV-AIDS. Journal of Australian Studies 38(2), 233-245.

[11] Moran, J. (1990, July 19). Minister: Landlord Trying to Evict Him Because He Has AIDS. The Daily Gazette. Retrieved from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1957&dat=19900619&id=F3MhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=tIgFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5437,4734415&hl=en

[12] Altman, L. K. (1981, July 3). Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html

[13] Brennan, A. (2014, July 2). Thirty-three Years Ago: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”. [Blog]. Retrieved from http://gvshp.org/blog/2014/07/02/thirty-three-years-ago-rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals/

[14] Gay Rage. (1986). National Review, 3818.

[15] Greene, B. (1985, June 30). The Incubation of a National Tragedy. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-06-30/features/8502120247_1_aids-dilemma-aids-crisis-homosexual-men

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