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Anti-AIDS mural in New York City

In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article describing cases of a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Though the article did not identify the races of the men, it was reported as a “white gay man’s disease” and shaped much of the initial medical and societal response to HIV/AIDS.

Because of the stigma surrounding HIV, many Black institutions and organizations were unwilling to address the epidemic. Where many mainstream Black organizations were silent, Black LGBTQIA+ organizations, including Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) and the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, provided HIV/AIDS education and services to their communities.

Sharing drug paraphernalia, mass incarceration, and lack of access to medical care exacerbated the spread of the virus in African American communities. Women contracted the virus, but medical professionals and the government did not classify their illnesses as AIDS. After a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and protests at the CDC, the government expanded its definition of AIDS to include diseases affecting women.

In the late 1980s and 1990s several African American celebrities, including Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe, and Eazy-E, made their HIV-positive status public, helping to change perceptions of who HIV affected. Today, African Americans account for nearly half of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States.