World AIDS Day: Acknowledging Progress

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of World AIDS Day, an international observance in support of those living with HIV/AIDS and in memory of the lives lost in the epidemic. And while there have been significant strides toward finding a cure, the truth remains that millions of people are affected by the virus every day. Since 1985, GLAAD has worked hard to ensure that the lives of LGBT people affected by the virus are not defamed in the media. And it shows.

In the early 1980s media coverage of HIV/AIDS often sensationalized the infection, painting a plague-like picture of gay men wasting away from a mysterious illness. The reporting in the mainstream media focused largely on generating fear and hate towards the LGBT community rather than the stories of the individuals whose lives were actually being affected by the infection. In June 1983, leaders from a number of LGBT organizations met with the vice chairman of the New York Times to express their concerns about the newspaper’s coverage of the epidemic and the community — AIDS was rarely mentioned in the Metro section or the paper’s national news reporting, and large events like the Madison Square Garden circus to benefit the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) — which even New York Mayor Ed Koch attended — failed to be covered. In the meeting, the leaders asked the vice chairman to use the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” in their reporting, but the New York Times vice chairman refused. The interaction was representative of the era, and in 1985, after a slew of grossly defamatory AIDS coverage in the New York Post, GLAAD was formed to start turning AIDS coverage around.

Today, as we observe World AIDS Day, we are faced with news coverage that, for the most part, tells the stories of individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS in a fair and representative manner. Particularly in the past couple of years, the mainstream media has done a great job of keeping the public informed about the epidemic’s latest developments.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” last weekend, conservative LGBT equality supporter and blogger Andrew Sullivan was interviewed by Howard Kurtz about being HIV-positive. In the segment, Sullivan, who was diagnosed in 1993, talked about how he copes with a hectic work schedule while living with HIV and how it always shocks him that so many people seem to have forgotten how horrific the disease was back in the 1980s and 1990s.

In October, the New York Times ran a touching story about a group of advocates who want to turn the site of a former hospital into a memorial park for those who lost their lives to the disease. St. Vincent’s Hospital, which closed in 2010, was one of the earliest hospitals to record an AIDS case, and was home to the first AIDS wing in the Northeast.

Last December, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene released a public service announcement aimed to encourage gay and bisexual men to use condoms that sensationalized and stigmatized HIV/AIDS by painting a grim picture of what it is like to live with HIV. GLAAD joined forces with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to protest the clip, and although it was not pulled, media outlets like the Washington Post reported on the controversy.

The African American media has also done a good job reporting on HIV/AIDS within their community, for whom the rate of infection among men who have sex with men is growing at an alarming rate. Originally published by the Black AIDS Weekly, a two-part article series titled “Reversing the Alarming HIV Increase Among Black Gay Men” was syndicated across Black owned newspapers and magazines around the country, including HIV/AIDS resources such as TheBody.com. (You can read part one online here and part two online here.)

While we acknowledge the progess made in the conversation around HIV/AIDS to reflect a more humanizing tone, there remains significant work to be done around the criminalizaton of the infection, both in the media and within the public's perception. GLAAD encourages media outlets to continue to highlight the stories of the individuals affected by the epidemic while lending their editorial influence to denouce the criminalizing of people currently infected with HIV/AIDS. We also encourage you to take this opportunity to remember the millions who have died so far from HIV/AIDS, by attending commemorative events in your city or town (check TheBody.com for local listings).

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