Poonam Nayak

“ASERIOUS disorder of the immune system that has been known to doctors for less than a year – a disorder that appears to affect primarily male homosexuals – has now afflicted at least 335 people, of whom it has killed 136, officials of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said yesterday”[1]

This was the headlines of the New York Times in the year 1982. This was a time when AIDS was not yet known to mankind. This was a time when Kaposi’s sarcoma was only seen in old patients with leukemia or CMV retinitis was unheard of, it was practically impossible to see these along with Pneumocystis jirovecii (PJP) pneumonia in young, previously healthy males. When the number of patients steadily increased, researchers and doctors wondered what the common factor could be, and it just so happened to be homosexuality. All the patients were known to have at some point of their lives been involved in sexual activity with males, thus leading to a very common misconception “the gay plague”. Even when this was disproved merely a year later, in 1982 where it was proven that HIV spread through sexual activity and intravenous drug use, the seeds had been sown, and this was just the beginning.

While the researchers had never explicitly named AIDS as the gay disease, the fact that the first man to be diagnosed with AIDS was a gay man had a greater impact on the media and the population than the disease itself did. New York Times named it GRID or Gay Related Immune related Disorder, the Australian called it the “gay plague” and nearly 9 months after the CDC (Center of Disease Control in USA) had disowned the theory, the British paper Times called it the gay virus plague. [2] AIDS and gay was gold for the newspaper companies. AIDS had everything, the celebrity exposures, sex, and more importantly it gave the general straight population an opportunity to ostracize a group that was already marginalized- the “gay” or the homosexuals.

As mentioned in the paper, “For Whom is this World Just?: Sexual Orientation and AIDS” people are more inclined to blame the gay man with AIDS rather than the heterosexual man” [3]. This seems to be in line with the just world hypothesis suggests that The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished. [4] This means that people found it easy to justify the fact that “a gay man got what he had coming for not being moral or that prostitutes and drug users deserved to die the painful death for walking down the dark path.”

Although it severely divided the society, the fact that it was called the Gay Plague did more than just reject a group of population. When AIDS was already declared as an epidemic in 1982, and politicians were questioned about the same, they laughed it off as the gay cancer, made homophobic jokes about it and did not provide funds for research. By the time the then president of US (one of the worst hit countries at the time) Ronald Reagan addressed it in 1987, from 600 people infected, nearly 23,000 had died of the disease and they were not only the gays. [5] The fear had spread so far and wide that Ryan White, a high school student with hemophilia who was diagnosed with AIDS due to transfusion of infected blood products was expelled from school for having AIDS.

The picture in India is slightly different. When it was first diagnosed in 1987, it was tested positive in 5 sex workers from Madras.[7] It is because of this very fact, most people related the disease to prostitutes and the west where homosexuality and sex was rampant and not something a supposedly “healthy man” with a normal family of a wife and kids could contract. This continued to further complicate the diagnosis of aids in homosexual and bisexual men. Not only was homosexuality criminalized back in 1987, it also meant that if you were diagnosed with the disease, you weren’t the monogamous, heterosexual, god fearing person you claimed to be.

Nearly 40 years later, with the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2018, the diagnosis of AIDS in homosexual men still poses a challenge. AIDS in India is still a disease of the sex workers just as it’s a disease of the gays. The toxic masculinity that exists in the society prevents men from coming forward to get tested even with the provision the government has made for free ARV drugs to positive patients. While men do drabble in anal sex as a form of experimentation, they don’t understand that protection must be used even then and that AIDS is not a disease of the gays, not a disease of the sex workers but is a sexually transmitted disease. [8] If the history of AIDS teaches us anything, it is that while education is important, it is also important to separate personal views from medicine and diseases. After all, if microorganisms don’t differentiate you on the basis of your sexual orientation, your lifestyle choices, why should you?


1.https://www.nytimes.com/1982/05/11/science/new-homosexual-disorder-worries-health-officials.html, original print in 1982.

2. http://www.gayinthe80s.com/2014/04/1980s-hivaids-why-was-aids-called-the-gay-plague/

3. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1992.tb01538.x

4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just-world_hypothesis

5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2015/12/01/a-disturbing-new-glimpse-at-the-reagan-administrations-indifference-to-aids/

6. https://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview

7. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37183012

8. https://www.independent.co.uk/aidsfree/dehli-gay-men-hiv-testing-aidsfree-india-lgbt-a8720721.html

This article was heavily inspired by this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O13KwsyDqeE&list=WL&index=3&t=45s


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