OVERVIEW

Disease, death, and terror. These are all part of an epidemic. Epidemics are absolutely terrifying because oftentimes we don’t know where they came from, how they spread, and whom they infect. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s was frightening time for many people, from politicians who did not know how to address the issue to scientists frantically searched for a cure to the mysterious illness, a cure which still remains unknown. 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 the first cases of AIDS, or auto immunodeficiency syndrome were found in the gay community of the United States (at least at first). The New York Times first brought AIDS into the public’s knowledge in 1981, when they published an article about forty-one gay men who died from a then unknown illness[1]. The newspaper focused on gay men, rather than the disease itself and people started to believe that these men were the cause of the epidemic. When the human race faces obstacles, such as the horror of the AIDS virus, people will want to blame a specific group. Why? So that they can diminish their own fears. People do not like ‘unknown’, they want security. If they blame a specific group or say that the disease only affects that group, then perhaps they do not have to be scared anymore. This fear and blame lead to serious demonization of gay men during the AIDS crisis. What is demonization? Well, The Oxford English Dictionary defines demonization 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, as defined by the site “Propaganda Critic”[3]. Propaganda can have many masks, such as offensive images, falsifying newspaper articles, and advertising campaigns; one image that many people can relate to is the images of the Jewish people spread throughout Nazi Germany. In the case of the AIDS crisis, propaganda took its form in newspaper articles. Essentially, one group keeps sending messages about another group and they’re trying to change the way people think and behave towards the group they are targeting. These articles sent the message that gay men were responsible for the AIDS crisis; they sent this message to a mostly straight (heterosexual) audience. How were the messages ‘self-interested’? Well, by targeting gay men, it reduced the mostly straight press’ fears, and it puts the blame on someone other than them- they can just say it only affects gay people, and therefore they don’t need to live in fear. This is a self-interested move. It is important to note that at the time, gay men were not accepted into society the way they are today. The lack of acceptance probably made them an easier target.

At first, the press sent the message that AIDS was called a ‘gay disease’, as if a disease could be ‘gay’ (a ridiculous assertion). This message calmed the public; if AIDS is a gay disease, the heterosexual portion of the population (aka the majority) has nothing to fear. However, the messages slandered gay men. AIDS was called ‘gay plague’. Craig Rimmerman, a political science professor, writes in his book The Lesbian and Gay Movements: Assimilation or Liberation? that some newspapers referred to AIDS as GRID, or “gay-related immunodeficiency”[4]. Giving AIDS this name completely and totally focuses the disease on one specific group and leaves everyone else ‘immune’. As a result, many ideas about the nature of gay men were propagated, from messages of hatred to the idea that gay men were promiscuous and diseased. Whether this demonization was intentional or not, we cannot know. The likelihood is that some of it may have been unconscious- just authors spitting out editorials and articles putting gay men as the center without knowing. This is more ‘ideology’. What is ideology? Ideology is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a systematic scheme of ideas… a set of beliefs”, so essentially a set of ideas in society that many people believe. Other articles specifically targeted gay people because they did not like them nor their way of life and wanted other people to feel the same way.

Before the disease received much attention, it was basically ignored by the press. According to Chomsky and Barclay, in an article in the Journal of Homosexuality, they explain that 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[5]. Why was it ignored? It is true that AIDS mostly affected gay men, and since gay men were since as less human by some people and definitely seen as less important by most people, the fact that they were getting sick probably was not concerning to the general public. When the illness finally attention, 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

Scapegoating and Glittering Generalities

From the very beginning of the disease’s incorporation into mainstream media, it was immediately associated with gay men. 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”[6], as Craig Rimmerman explains it in his book. The news stories were framed around the idea that it mainly affected the gay community, instead of focusing mostly on the medical aspects of the illness. According to Castañeda and Campbell in their book on the relationship between sexuality and the news, the media made a strategic effort to isolate the disease to the gay community, and portray the straight population as safe from harm[7]. This was an epidemic, meaning that it spreads to a lot of people within a short period of time, and AIDS is deadly, so it would have been useful for people to have known what the disease was, how it was transmitted, etc. but instead they got information on the fact that it was affecting gay people and they suggested that gay men were the cause. This an example of both scapegoating and “glittering generalities”. The informative site Propaganda Critic defines explains that “Glittering Generality device seeks to make us approve and accept without examining the evidence”[8]. In the case of the AIDS crisis, we ‘approved’ the idea that gay men caused the disease to spread and people did not examine the evidence. The evidence was the scientific information which illustrated that AIDS could affect anyone. Diseases do not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Authors Castañeda and Campbell stated that the press “framed [AIDS] as a universal problem perpetuated by gay men”7, which is an extremely serious accusation, because AIDS is so scary and deadly. But by blaming the gay men, the public does not have to blame the public cannot blame politicians, the CDC, hospitals, doctors, or immigration control for having let the disease loose among America’s citizens.

Logical Fallacy- False Cause

In addition to framing the disease as ‘gay plague’, the mainstream media press also implied or even specifically said that contracting AIDS could be a punishment for a person’s homosexuality, which does not make any logical sense. Diseases cannot punish, because they are not living beings with motivations and desires. The LGBT community was not largely accepted in the United States in the 1980s, since it’s barely gaining acceptance today, twenty years later. The idea that AIDS was a punishment could be considered a logical fallacy. Amherst College defines a logical fallacy as “errors– sometimes inadvertent, sometimes deliberate, that skew the logic of an argument.”[9] There are many logical fallacies that we’ve seen in arguments we hear or read, even if we can’t name the fallacy specifically or we don’t really even know what a logical fallacy is. The logical fallacy in the case of calling AIDS a punishment would be “false cause”. The website your logical fallacy is defines false cause as “a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other”, aka making something the cause of event which really has nothing to do with it. The fact that gay men had AIDS has nothing to with punishment or some divine action or their lifestyle, just being openly gay. Many saw AIDS as a punishment for being gay, and this opinion was propagated in the media. It was a consequence for ‘transgressive’ behavior5, in the opinion of Castañeda and Campbell and the first reports on the illness was plagued by stories meant ‘moralize’ their audience[10] (see figure 1), as told by Gould in his book about the AIDS crisis and the movements that arose from it, Moving Politics: Emotion and Act Up’s Fight Against AIDS.

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.

fig1
Figure 1.  Article from the Observer-Reporter, January 18, 1986. The article given attention to a priest who claims that “AIDS is god dictating his displeasure” with gay men and that “God is taking action”, and he clearly is looking for a scapegoat for this disease which everyone is afraid of. 

More scapegoating

The press articles on AIDS focused mostly on gay men and they were making these men their scapegoats for an illness which likely frightened them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines scapegoating as “the action or practice of making a scapegoat of someone[11] and a scapegoat is defined as “one who is blamed or punished for the sins of others[12]. The gay community was blamed for the AIDS epidemic and it spreading in the United States. Although there is no ‘sin of others’ when there is an epidemic, so we really don’t know what is happening, they were definitely punished and maltreated. For example, an article in the Australian magazine Quadrant blamed gay men for the spread of the disease outright and argued this point deliberately[13]. This blame hurt the gay community, there is no doubt. Magazines such as Life made gay men into villains- they regularly associated gay men with the AIDS epidemic[14], as described by Streitmatter in his book From “Perverts” to “Fab Five”: The Media’s Changing Depiction of Gay Men and Lesbians. In addition, 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[15], clearly people were scared and willing to any and everything to prevent the spread of the disease, which they had absolutely no control over or even an understanding of what AIDS was[16]. 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 portrayals of people with AIDS did not help him. Although this article may illustrate some of the discrimination that AIDS victims had to contend with, his eviction in and of itself could be a result of the consensus about the gay community and the AIDS epidemic mirrored in the newspapers of the day.

fig2
Figure 2. Article from The Daily Gazette, July 19, 1990. The article explains that “Rev. Daniel Ritchie testified… over his complaints that his landlord is trying to evict him”.

Media outlets could have made people see gay men negatively. 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. In the book News and Sexuality- Media Portraits of Diversity, the authors explain that “the us versus them dichotomy was prevalent, which set the stage for AIDS to be depicted as ‘gay plague’”[17](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. Newspapers were the main if not the only source of ‘credible’ news information, since the internet was not as accessible or huge as it is today. Writing on the AIDS epidemic is indicative the homophobic themes and scapegoating strategies.

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[18]. In the article, it says “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. The author seems to be looking for a way to hone the disease to one specific group of people. They don’t actually quote any of the patients, so they are not looking for the input of anyone with AIDS, they’re just putting their opinion out there.

fig3
Figure 3. First article in The New York Times referencing what would later be known as AIDS. The article here clearly refers to gay men. The title alone immediately associates gay men with the sickness. The article says discusses “an outbreak among a single group”

On April 25th of 1986, The National Review published an article titled “Gay Rage”[19] 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 author’s name is not included in the article. 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”. This is plainly discrimination in and of itself. If audiences see articles like this, they are going to form an idea of gay people or it could even change their view of them, from neutral to negative, positive to negative, or even negative to hateful. 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 utilizes blame to demonize the innocent victims of AIDS.

fig4
Figure 4. Article from The National Review titled “Gay Rage”. The author states that gay right legistlation “legitimizes the thrusting of obviously gay behavior at the straight population” and that gay people are not being villified enough. The author says that “AIDS shows signs of breaking into the straight population”, as if gay people are pushing AIDS onto people.

In propaganda they use little bits of truth and then lots of exaggeration. In this case, it is true that AIDS was affecting mostly gay people, however they weren’t only affecting gay people, even though the press made it seem this way. Propaganda does not really use many facts, because if they did, people would have to dismiss what the propaganda is saying. This is similar to the Life magazine article titled “Now No One is Safe from AIDS” (see figure 5)[22], which implies that the disease was isolated and then suddenly is affecting the straight population[21]. They are just trying to scare people and they say that the disease was isolated and then suddenly is affecting the straight population.

fig5
Figure 5. Life Magazine cover about the AIDS crisis. The magazine is using fear tactics to try to grab the attention of readers. The title implies that before AIDS was widespread, only certain groups could contract the illness.

 

CONCLUSION

Demonization is scary. It leads to discrimination and people getting false information. This is what happened during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Gay men were scapegoats as the cause of AIDS and this discrimination could have an effect on their community. Why were they scapegoats? Why were they stereotyped as promiscuous and diseased? Perhaps as a way to demonize their way of life because it represented a new way of living. Men who were openly gay may have represented a liberation and break from traditional American values and way of life which could have been scary. People are afraid of things they don’t know and being openly gay was probably unfamiliar for them. As a result, AIDS wasn’t seen seriously enough and not enough research was done at the beginning of the outbreak and many people died. There is still no cure for AIDS. The entire experience of the crisis probably hurt a lot of people- the victims were not treated well, by the press or the general public, they received a lot of negative attention. This demonization does not help anyone or anything, it only hurts people and slows progress in society.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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

  1. How are the articles about AIDS a form of propaganda? What were newspapers trying to do? How effective do you think they were at getting their message out there?
  2. There were several newspaper articles included in the writing above- what type of reaction did you have to these titles? Do you think they were trying to evoke a certain response at the time?
  3. How could newspaper articles that referred specifically to gay men in association with AIDS could have affected people’s opinions of gay men in general?
  4. Do you think that newspapers were targeting gay men for a specific reason? Why would they target this group? Do you think this group was more vulnerable to attacks?
  5. Oftentimes, when there is an outbreak of disease, people immediately look for a certain group to blame as a fear reaction. Do you think that the newspapers were using articles about gay men to try to handle fears? Is this a form of propaganda?

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information on demonization and the AIDS crisis, there are articles you can read and experiences to hear about. There was an article written in the magazine titled The Atlantic which talks about what reporting was like during the AIDS crisis and what reporters did. Time magazine wrote a similar article, but they talk more about the first few articles about AIDS. A website with an article titled “Here’s 35 Years of Headlines on the AIDS Epidemic” has a lot of examples of different articles that were published about the crisis. There is a documentary about the AIDS crisis and they talk about the press and they even have clips from live news, which really gives you a picture of how people saw the illness. The film is titled How to Survive a Plague. The New York Times has a website listing a number of articles written on the AIDS crisis, all from the 1980s, specifically from 1981 to 1987.

[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] Delwiche, A. (February 28, 2011). Propaganda Critic Retrieved from http://www.propagandacritic.com/articles/index.html

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

[5] 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

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

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

[8] Delwiche, A. “Common Techniques- Word Games- Glittering Generalities” (February 28, 2011) Propaganda Critic. Retrieved from http://www.propagandacritic.com/articles/ct.wg.gg.html

[9] “Logic and Logical Fallacies”. Amherst College- Online Resources for Writers. Retrieved from https://www.amherst.edu/academiclife/support/writingcenter/resourcesforwriters/logical

[10] Gould, D. B. (2009). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

[12] 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

[13] (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

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

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

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

[18] 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

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

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

[21] 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

[22] Frascino, R. (June 30, 2011) “Three Decades of HIV/AIDS, Part Two. The Body- The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource. Retrieved from http://www.thebody.com/content/62791/three-decades-of-hivaids-part-two.html

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