Millions of people will tune in to the Oscars to see “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, compete for best picture.
But as a gay historian, I keep coming back to something else – the tragic history that’s glaringly absent from this movie.
Mercury, along with all the other men and women who tested positive for HIV in the 1980s, was a victim not just of a pandemic but of the failures of his own governments and of the scorn of his fellow citizens. The laughable initial response to the HIV pandemic helped seal Mercury’s fate.
None of that is in the movie.
Governments turn their backs
In the early 1980s, when an epidemic of HIV first struck a few population centers in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere, governments mounted almost no public health response.
Doctors initially noticed the virus in groups of people who happened to already be stigmatized for other reasons: men who had sex with men, drug users and, due to racism, Haitians and Haitian-Americans.
The prejudiced initial public health response assumed that many of these people were getting the virus because of whatever was already supposedly wrong with them. Gay men, the thinking went, were getting it because of “risky” behaviors like having lots of partners. HIV was not, therefore, a threat to most straight people. The medical profession’s view of HIV was so colored by the idea that it was intrinsically gay that at first they named the virus “GRID,” an acronym for “gay-related immunodeficiency.”
That was bad science, as we know now. Especially in the absence of good public health information about how to have safer sex, your risk of contracting any sexually transmitted infection goes up when you have more partners. But there was nothing about gay sex in particular that caused AIDS. Lots of straight people had multiple partners in the 1970s and 1980s, but initially, by chance, some communities of gay men were hit harder.
Governments and the general public quietly left people with HIV to their fate. As one activist pointed out, two years into the crisis, the U.S. government had spent more to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious poisonings in Chicago that killed seven people than to research AIDS, which had already killed hundreds of people in the U.S. alone.
The first report of HIV in the U.K. was in 1981. There was no test for the virus until 1985, and there was no really effective treatment until 1996.
In 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to block a public health campaign promoting safe sex; she thought it would encourage teenagers to have sex, and, she claimed, they were not at risk of infection.
All told, it was an absurd response to the major public health catastrophe of our time and to a disease that would go on to kill 36 million people around the world – about as many as died in World War I.