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1981HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS Epidemic

A color photograph of a portion of a Stop Aids graffiti mural in New York City. The mural is painted on a light tan wall. The bottom half of the image features a depiction of a white brick wall with cracks running through many of the bricks, running the full length of the image. A light and dark blue cloud features prominently on the left side of the image with the words [STOP / AIDS] spray painted in yellow letters outlined in red. The middle of the image features an illustration two men standing in profile, facing each other, on either side of a tombstone. The front of the tombstone has the text [USE YOUR / HEAD BEFORE / YOU END UP / DEAD.] written in black text. The word [DEAD] is underlined and the letters have drip lines giving it a bloody text effect. The man on the left is featured wearing a yellow shirt, yellow pants, and black shoes with yellow laces. He has three black thought bubbles above, and to the right of his head. He is holding his proper left hand splayed out, reaching for a syringe with a bloody hypodermic needle in the proper right hand of the man depicted on the right of the tombstone. The man on the right is depicted with red spikey hair, a green shirt, green pants and black shoes with white laces. On the far right of the image is the text [THE LAW] written in red block letters, outlined in black, above a depiction of scrolled paper with the text [I. DON’T “SHOOT” / DRUGS. / II. USE CONDOM. / III. HAVE SEX WITH FAiTHFUL / PARTNER.] written in black text. There are no inscriptions on the recto. On the verso the image is signed in blue ink by the photographer.

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.