Overview: Government and Activism


  • AIDS first emerged among populations that are politically disadvantaged, socially marginalized, and partially hidden, such as gay men and injecting drug users. As a result of the low societal status of the earliest people with AIDS, the responsiveness of government institutions was limited during the earliest years of the epidemic.

  • The United States has a system of government in which power is shared by executive, legislative, and judicial authorities on both the federal and state levels. This system has created a wide range of governmental responses to HIV/AIDS.

  • In general in the United States, governments in heavily impacted cities and states responded more quickly and decisively than national authorities in the early years of the epidemic. Likewise, government institutions controlled by the Democratic Party have generally been more engaged with HIV/AIDS issues than those controlled by the Republican Party.

  • In response to governmental and societal indifference and hostility, many people with HIV/AIDS became political activists by forming protest groups such as ACT UP and launching high-profile demonstrations that made use of innovative strategies to attract media attention.

Coverage in the Encyclopedia

The Government entries of the Encyclopedia of AIDS focus on the general political process and on specific institutions of government in the United States. The response of government in other countries is covered in the entries on the various world regions.

The Activism entries focus largely on ACT UP, the flagship organization of AIDS activism in the United States and elsewhere. Activism before the founding of ACT UP in 1987 is also covered as are forms of activism that occurred in tandem with or in reaction to that carried out by ACT UP. A variety of specific activist strategies and approaches are also covered.

Entries on specific policy and legal issues are discussed in the section on "Policy and Law."

Entries on Government

Congress, U.S.
Court Cases
Legislation, U.S.
Political Parties, U.S.
Politicians and Policy Makers, U.S.
Presidency, U.S.
State and Local Government, U.S.
United States Government Agencies

Entries on Activism

Demonstrations and Direct Actions
Gay and Lesbian Organizations
Gay Rights
Marches and Parades
Media Activism
Professional Organizations
Service and Advocacy Organizations
World AIDS Day


Perspectives on the AIDS Epidemic: Government and Activism

The High Price of Homophobia: HIV Prevention Education

Discrimination is not only a social concern, but also a health-care concern. In the fight against AIDS, homophobia has been a serious barrier to HIV prevention education. In the United States, homophobia permeates social attitudes regarding sexuality and sexual behavior. Because of the strong association with gay and bisexual men at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, homophobia has had many negative effects. Among these have been inadequate HIV prevention efforts in schools and the undermining of public health initiatives for HIV prevention and research appropriate to high risk populations.

The link between societal homophobia and AIDS was established early in the epidemic, when AIDS was still known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Only later, when the disease was found to be in other populations, including women, was the name changed to AIDS.

Despite the proliferation of HIV infection and AIDS throughout the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan did not utter the word AIDS publicly until more than six years into the epidemic. Nor did President Reagan and his administration allocate sufficient funds to fight this preventable disease. During that period, violence toward gay men and lesbians increased dramatically. In such an atmosphere, the gay and lesbian community, as well as public health workers and researchers, had to struggle for access to even small amounts of funding.

While AIDS is a behaviorally based disease, it is caused by more than just the behaviors of people who engage in unprotected sex and needle-sharing. AIDS is also caused by the discriminatory behavior of individuals and governments. We know that gay youth, for example, are at high risk for HIV infection: by June 1996, more than 10,000 cases of AIDS had been diagnosed among men under age 25 who had acquired HIV through sex with other men. Yet, in response, we still teach gay youth to be ashamed of who they are instead of affirming them at a very vulnerable stage of their development.

In the United States, we teach several clear lessons through our laws: gay and lesbian lovemaking is a criminal act in nearly half the states; lesbian and gay relationships are unworthy of legal recognition; in more than three-quarters of the states, the civil rights of lesbians and gay men have no legal protections; gays and lesbians are unfit for military service; and gay and lesbian issues are forbidden in most classrooms. To turn around the behaviors that lead to HIV infection, then, we have to take a hard look at the societal prejudices that foster HIV infection.

As a society, we condemn promiscuity among gay men, but then tell same-sex couples who desire to make a commitment to each other that they are somehow a threat to the family. The U.S. Congress has added to the burden of the fight against AIDS when it voted overwhelmingly to prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage through its so-called "Defense of Marriage Act." In essence, the lawmakers said to the gay and lesbian community that a stable, monogamous relationship between partners of the same sex has no value in the United States. As a society, we also say that we are against unfair discrimination and prejudice, but most institutions refuse to take the steps necessary to relieve the atmosphere of anti-gay bigotry that permeates many settings. This devaluing of gay men and lesbians discourages stable relationships and invites discrimination and violence against people perceived as second-class citizens. Yet, when gay and lesbian people object to homophobia and discrimination, they are often told that they are causing a "disruption."

There are times when we need disruptions. We need to disrupt a status quo that accepts ignorance about human sexuality. We need to challenge the morality of anti-gay bigots, instead of allowing them to label all lesbians and gay men as "immoral." In the AIDS crisis, the number one factor that helps people -- young or old, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual -- to protect themselves and others against HIV is giving those people a sense that they have a bright and productive future. People must be told that they have a future and a chance at a good life. If they do not, how can they be persuaded to put on a condom, to stop drinking, to stop injecting drugs? Yet many lesbians and gay men are being sent the message that the future is going to be a lot more difficult, simply because of whom they love. Until society addresses some of these underlying barriers to HIV prevention, it cannot hope to get it under control.

Joyce Hunter

The Encyclopedia of AIDS: A Social, Political, Cultural, and Scientific Record of the HIV Epidemic, Raymond A. Smith, Editor. Copyright © 1998, Raymond A. Smith. Carried by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

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