HIV History Part 2: Difficult Times That Shouldn’t Be Forgotten


We’re taking time to look back at the early history of HIV/AIDS in America.

1986 – Spread Knowledge, Not Panic

By the end of 1986, there were 28,712 reported cases of HIV/AIDS and 24,559 AIDS-related deaths (an 86 percent death rate). Fear and panic were at an all-time high, as was discrimination and stigma.

Despite cases of HIV/AIDS being found in a variety of populations (all genders, sexual orientations, etc.) gay men continued to bear the greatest burden of the disease, and as such, the burden of stigma and discrimination. Advocates continued to fight tirelessly for funding and increased awareness/activism. In 1986, the U.S. surgeon general called for a widespread and comprehensive system of sexual health education to include HIV/AIDS and urged the widespread use of condoms.

Activists alike took up the cause and made the effort to disseminate medically accurate information as well as information about safer sex practices. Meanwhile, in California, activist Cleve Jones created the first square of the now famous AIDS Memorial Quilt in honor of his friend, Marvin Feldman. Jones and others eventually organized to create the NAMES Project Foundation. The quilt was first displayed in Washington, D.C. in 1987. Today, the quilt has more than 48,000 panels honoring those lost to the epidemic.

1987 – AZT & ACT UP

The year 1987 saw the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases increase to 50,378 with 40,849 AIDS-related deaths (an 81 percent death rate). Disenfranchised with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis by what he felt was a lack of political gall, writer Larry Kramer spoke before a crowd at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in New York City. His speech called for action, and it ultimately inspired the creation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP.

Viewed by the media as a radical group, members of ACT UP picketed, protested, advocated and educated. They adopted the now famous “Silence = Death” logo and demanded action from the government for the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

That same year the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved zidovudine (AZT), the most effective drug to date for combating HIV/AIDS and the first anti-HIV drug approved for use in the United States. AZT was the most expensive prescription drug in history and was later discovered to have several negative side-effects, but in 1987, it represented hope for a community of people who had been living without hope for years. (Read about how ACT UP has been reinvigorated this year.)

1988 – The Hope Act & World AIDS Day

By 1988, the number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS had risen to 82,362 with 61,816 AIDS-related deaths (a 75 percent death rate). Through the efforts of activists and researchers, the HOPE Act of 1988 was passed by Congress. This piece of legislation allowed for the amendment of the Public Health Service Act and secured federal funding for AIDS education, prevention, testing and research. This crucial piece of legislation has paved the way for modern efforts.

The same year, the World Health Organization declared Dec. 1 as World AIDS Day. Since 1988 this day has been marked as a day of remembrance for those who have lost their lives to this epidemic as well as a showing of support for those living with HIV/AIDS.

1989 – The End of the 1980s

In 1989, the reported number of HIV/AIDS cases in the United States eclipsed 100,000 with 117,508 reported cases and 89,343 reported AIDS-related deaths (a 76 percent death rate). In less than a decade, this disease had claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people in the United States alone. The fight for funding, treatment, research and prevention was just starting, and the 1990s, 2000s, and current decade held and hold challenges of their own.

thread on Reddit asked gay men who lived through the height of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s to tell their stories. One submitter commented, “No one should die alone, and no one should be in the hospital on their death beds with family calling to say “this was God’s punishment.” My friends and I, men and women, acted as a protective layer for ill friends, and companion to mutual friends juggling the same, difficult reality of trying to be there, and be strong when we were losing our family right and left. Difficult times, that should never be forgotten.”

We at Palmetto Community Care have not forgotten.

Jarmel Smith

PrEP and Prevention Program Manager

Read Bio

Jarmel joined the team in April 2017 to co-facilitate an intervention program called 3MV (Many Men Many Voices) for HIV-negative African-American men who sleep with men. Jarmel is also part of the Palmetto Community Care prevention team certified by the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control to complete HIV testing. p> “Having friends who have been diagnosed with HIV it is very important to me to be a part of the change,” he says. He’s using his role in HIV prevention to educate people in the community about HIV and other sexually transmitted infections with they hope they will use the information to protect themselves and others. Previously, Jarmel worked as a residential coordinator for people with disabilities. In his free time, he enjoyed Southern cooking and spending time with his family in Orangeburg. He also has two spoiled dogs, Omega and Cookie, who like to cuddle up with Jarmel and watch their favorite TV show, “The Golden Girls.”
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