The Power of Silence: How The Aids Epidemic Affects Heterosexuals

The Power of Silence: How The Aids Epidemic Affects Heterosexuals

In the United States as early as 1960 the AIDS epidemic arouse but is not noticed until 1981, after doctors discover Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia in young homosexual men in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco. HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that attacks the immune system, specifically CD4 or T Cells. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, anal fluids, and breast milk. Historically, HIV is primarily spread through unprotected sex, sharing of needles for drug use, and through birth. Throughout time, HIV can destroy many CD4 cells that the body is not able to fight off infections and diseases, eventually leading to the most severe form of an HIV infection, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.[1] An individual with AIDS is vulnerable to cancer as well as other life-threatening infections. Unfortunately, there is no cure for HIV and AIDS, but people can receive treatment and are able to live as long as someone who is not infected with the virus. Originally, AIDS has been framed on the homosexuals and ignored by the most powerful authorities in the United States, while later it is brought to the publics attention that this disease is not just transmitted through homosexuals rather many heterosexuals are suffering from AIDS and doctors, religious leaders, politicians, and advocates must step up to raise awareness to the cause that is consistently silenced throughout history.

Although, HIV arrived in America around 1970, it is not brought to the public’s attention until the early 1980s. In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report about five previously healthy homosexual men who become infected with Pneumocystis pneumonia. A year later, The New York Times publishes a frightening article about the new immune system disorder, which, by that time, has already affected 335 people, killing 136 of them. This disease is mostly blamed on homosexual men, therefore called the gay-related immune deficiency, or GIRD.[2]

During the initial spark of the AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan is the President of the United States. The Reagan Administration has been known for their lack of response to the AID epidemic in the early and mid-1980s. President Reagan famously does not publicly mention AIDS until 1985, when the disease has already killed more than 5,000 people. The Reagan Administration reacts to the harmful problem in a chilling fashion. Shockingly, not even Reagan’s appointed press secretary, Larry Speakes, has much to say about the crisis. There are audio tapes released from three separate press conferences in 1982, 1983, and 1984, when Lester Kinsolving, a conservative fixture in the White House press corps, consistently scoffed when he posed urgent questions about the AIDS epidemic. With snickering homophobic comments and a disturbing air of the lack of interest, Speakes dismisses Kinsolving’s concerns about the escalating problem. It is beyond infuriating of the Reagan administration’s fatal inaction in tackling a generation-defining tragedy.[3] Notably, Reagan views this disease as the overall decline of American morals rather than a social problem that government could help solve.

Throughout the 1980s, in the minds of many Americans, AIDS is closely associated to homosexuality. This is a result of the disproportionate impact of AIDS on the homosexual community, along with the prevalence of widespread negative attitudes toward homosexuals at the time. The political construction of AIDS and the association between AIDS attitudes and attitudes towards gay people are intensified by the efforts of the gay community itself and opponents in the Christian Right. The initial research for AIDS and prevention of AIDS comes from the gay community, which also, is the primary source for volunteers and monetary donations.[4] The homosexual community works to illustrate an understanding that the HIV infection results from behavior rather than status, with heterosexual and homosexual behaviors both carrying potential risks for transmission.

In the political spectrum, members of the Christian Right and other conservatives continuously invoke AIDS in their antigay political rhetoric. They blame the gay community for starting the AIDS epidemic and portray homosexuals as ongoing dangers to themselves and heterosexuals. Based on this premise, conservatives argue for numerous punitive measures under the notion of fighting AIDS. They propose state sodomy laws, such as tattooing people infected with HIV. Hence, a connection between AIDS and homosexuality is apparent in the public’s perception and attitudes. Empirical evidence throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s reveals that Americans with high levels of sexual prejudice are more likely than others to be poorly informed and excessively fearful concerning AIDS, and more likely to stigmatize people with AIDS.[5] Furthermore, gay men with AIDS and men who contract HIV through male-to male intercourse are more negatively evaluated and blamed than heterosexuals are with AIDS.

The film, How to Survive a Plague further emphasizes how the AIDS epidemic is presented as a male dominant homosexual issue. In the late 1980s, members of Act-Up in addition to other AIDS activists battle to decrease the number of victims who are struggling with the disease and hoping to find a cure. The activists are facing a constant struggle to receive a response from the United States government and a medical establishment in developing effective AIDS and HIV medication. These activists take it upon themselves to convince the FDA to approve drugs, which could slow down the AIDS virus and possible are life-saving treatments. During the time, the only medicine to slow down the disease is AZT and is estimated 10,000 dollars per year in the 1980s. The film examines how AIDS affects heterosexuals. A prominent figure in the film, Peter Staley, is a former closeted Wall Street bond trader with HIV who left his job and helps form the activist group ACT UP. For years, Staley keeps it a secret that he is a homosexual and no one at work is aware, which is why he did not tell anyone he was infected with AIDS. Finally, he tells his colleagues about his secret and the floor’s lead trader responds, “Well, if you ask me they all deserve to dis because they took it up the butt.”[6] As a result, he takes direct action to stop the spread of AIDS.

Another group known for the art and activism, Gran Fury, uses a combination of bold graphic design, guerrilla dissemination tactics, and art institution support to communicate the urgency of the AIDS epidemic in light of the government and political inaction. The New York based group is known for the SILENCE = DEATH graphic that defines AIDS and HIV activist movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. The graphic is illustrated as an installation in the window of the New Museum, then in a storefront on lower Broadway in Soho, consisting of both a neon version of the SILENCE = Death graphic and photos of some of the people responsible for aggravating the AIDS crisis. Over the next eight years, Gran Fury would become famous for many other pieces of visually striking confrontational works throughout New York City.[7]

By the same token, the film United In Anger informs the public that the AIDS epidemic is not just a homosexual disease but it emphasizes how AIDS is affecting heterosexual women and is the leading cause of death for women in New York City. The documentary aims to educate people rather than agitate them. It provides a historical context on how the government neglects the idea of the AIDS crisis and calls for nothing less than a scorched-earth public-relations policy. Between 1981 and 1987 40,000 Americans died from HIV-related causes. Politicians, such as New Yorks Mayor Ed Koch completely disregard the current situation.[8]

“Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS! Screamed approximately seven thousand protestors marching along the sidewalks and lying in the streets surrounding St. Patrick Cathedral in November of 1989. Inside the church, men and women lay down in the aisles silently for a “die-in” accompanied by the screams of fellow protestors. One activist even stands on a pew yelling, “We’re not going to take it anymore! You’re killing us! Stop it!” Days earlier Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, condemns the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. O’Connor also attacks state abortion laws. The Catholic Church, which is wielded significant political and financial power in New York at this time, endorses the death of thousands of Americans and the spread of AIDS through its statements. The interest of women’s rights groups and AIDS activists overlap, bringing both gay and straight men and women of diverse backgrounds together in solidarity to protest church policies. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act UP) and Women’s Health Action and Mobilization (WHAM) organize the largest picketing and protest action that the Catholic Church in New York City has ever experienced. Disgustingly, O’Connor sat at the altar and waits while police pick up the passive and limp bodies of the “dead” demonstrators from the floor and arrest them. This documents an oral history of the AIDS epidemic by minimizing the use of mainstream media portrays and identifies the “democratic” and “self-selected” nature of the ACT UP group and its very specific demands as part of ACT UP’s success.[9]

The narratives of men and women involved in the movement are diverse, but part of a collective memory of struggle that involves memories of fear as well as community and strength in defiance of a dismissive or hostile power structure. Their fears are not only part of their personal experience but because of the reality of the spreading global AIDS pandemic.[10] With a sense of urgency, the men and women of ACT UP combat ignorance on the part of the public government regarding the nature of HIV and AIDS, its transmission, and who is at risk, being everyone. At first the coalition focuses on getting drugs into bodies. Later, they expand their horizons to include minorities, women, and the poor, supporting broad and more inclusive initiatives for equal services and social justice.

Moreover, doctors quickly discover that AIDS affects both sexes. Knowledge that the infection could be spread trough heterosexual contact first came from doctors at Montefiore Hospital and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. They reported in 1983 that AIDS has developed among seven female sexual partners of male intravenous drug users who have AIDS.[11] In every year since 1999, most new diagnoses of HIV are through heterosexual contact. National HIV surveillance statistics show that heterosexuals account for forty-eight percent of individuals seen for care in 2004, an increase from twenty-six percent in 1998. A main increase in the number of individuals diagnosed with HIV between 1998 and 2004 is mainly caused by the increase diagnoses of individuals who are infected through heterosexual sex, which more than tripled between 1998 and 2000 to over 4,000. Since 1999, the number of new HIV diagnoses among heterosexual individuals exceeds the number of new diagnoses among homosexual men.[12] To put in perspective, 16,000 people worldwide are infected with HIV every single day. In the United States, HIV infection rates hold steady at 40,000 per year, but recent preliminary data suggests those rates are on the rise. Of course, whites and people with higher incomes and insurance in the United States are gaining greater access to HIV therapies and there is a decrease in AIDS-related deaths. However, African-American, Hispanic and young white women are being exposed to HIV through sex with male partners. As a result, HIV rates are increasing at a disproportionate rate among these populations in American, and these women often do not have access to effective medical care. In Africa, Asia, and India, HIV has always been and still remains an overwhelmingly heterosexual disease.[13]

In opposition to the republican Reagan Administration the liberal Clinton Administration responds aggressively towards the significant threat posed by HIV and AIDS with increased attention to research, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, the Clinton Administration publically speaks how AIDS affects heterosexuals of all minorities nationwide. The Administration created a permanent Office of AIDS Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). On May 10, 2000 Clinton signs an Executive Order, which assists sub-Saharan African governments and medical technologies. This order will give Sub-Saharan governments the ability to bring life-saving drugs and medical technologies to affect populations.[14] This reflects the greatly improved treatments for those living with HIV. President Clinton declares HIV and AIDS to be a severe and ongoing health crisis.

Importantly, the spread of AIDS through heterosexuals heightens because of sexual affairs. A man, who is in a loving relationship with his female partner, is having promiscuous relationships with other men. The behavior is not just harmful to a relationship, but it can also be life-threatening to an individual and their partner of the opposite sex. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey’s show depicts how AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-Americans ages twenty-five to forty-four and women, college students, and people over the age of fifty are at greater risk than ever before because of these men who are living on the “down low.” This shows how there are both women and men who desire to interact with members of their own sex because most sexual behavior is private. The concept of the private sphere links back to Sodomy laws that establish acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the United States culture, and the structural society itself, because gender and sexuality are often the prime axis by which society distinguishes between “purity” and “danger.” The dangers are extremely high when one is living on the down low.[15] A man’s risky lifestyle can be deadly to himself and his sexual partners. Phil Wilson, the director of the Black AIDS Institute, says living on the down low is a new label for a behavior that has been going on for a long time. However, now more than ever the issue is occurring more often. Observers say that the increase in the number of HIV cases involving heterosexual sex among African American women is directly linked with these men on the “down low.”[16]

Worldwide, heterosexual transmission is the most common route of the HIV and AIDS infection. Given the importance of sexual transmission in the AIDS epidemic, many HIV and AIDS prevention strategies focus on identifying and promoting safer-sex practices. These practices are thought to be “safer” than other sexual practices in that they help reduce, but not eliminate the risk of transmitting HIV from one sexual partner to another. Importantly, epidemiologic evidence proves that male-to-male, male-to-female, and female-to-male sexual transmission of AIDS is abundant. This suggests that to promote health in respect to HIV and AIDS it is necessary to advocate precautionary behavior, such as using condom, especially with adolescents.[17]

The importance of developing AIDS risk reduction messages is the response to the societal gender roles, norms, and scripts that guide heterosexual interactions and influence sexual behavior. Gender roles are emphasized in heterosexual relationships because although the female condom is now available, the widespread acceptance and use of this device in the United States general population remains uncertain. Male condom use remains the most common HIV prevention method among heterosexuals. Additionally, within many heterosexually relationships, traditional gender roles and power inequalities give men greater or absolute power over safer sex decision-making.[18] Hence, heterosexual men indicate that they are well aware of traditional sexual scripts depicting men as the sexual initiators and aggressors. At the same time, men feel they are encouraged to engage in risky sexual behaviors to demonstrate their virility and sexual expertise. The male identity is attached to bravery, strength and security and may feel as if risking his life is a sign of sexual prowess. Women on the other hand are socialized to be feminine in gender. Femininity is associated with being submissive, nurturing, cooperative, and agreeable.[19] Thus, women are expected to take a passive seductive role in sexual situations and to defer and submit to their male partner’s wishes, which affects the sexually transmitted spread of AIDS.

All in all, the HIV and AIDS panic propels the study of sexuality, framing people’s sexual relationships as an important strategy for discovering information that will minimize risk of the disease. Underlining sexual attitudes and behaviors centrally concern around issues of desire, pleasure and power, and the degree to which individuals can challenge it with heterosexual relationships. It wasn’t till the 1980s that AIDS is recognized in the United States, being labeled as a “gay cancer.” Inequalities fuel the spread AIDS on many different levels and the stigma around the disease results in the vulnerable remain marginalized and most at risk. Once it becomes publically known that the disease is silently affecting heterosexuals, there is much more fear and action taken worldwide. The slogan “safer sex” is promoted throughout the nation and is all about protecting yourself and your partners from sexually transmitted infections, which helps one stay healthy. The emphasis on modern day practice of safer sex influences gender-roles on safe-sex behaviors. Sex and gender-role are two constructs that are related but not the same. Sex refers to being male or a female, while gender refers to culturally defined characteristics of being a male or a female. Hence, masculinity is associated with being independent, dominating and assertive and chose whether they engage in protected sex. Similar to other communicable diseases, AIDS can strike anyone and is not confined to a few high-risk groups. Currently, AIDS takes the lead in disseminating education about the disease with large-scale public awareness to avoid this lethal infection for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.



[1] Staff, “History of AIDS,” History. 2017.

[2] “A Timeline of HIV and AIDS,” HIV Gov, 2016,

[3] Caitlin Gibson, “A disturbing new glimpse at the Reagan administration’s indifference to AIDS,” The Washington Post, December 1, 2015,

[4] Gregory M. Herek and John P. Capitanio, “AIDS Stigma and Sexual Prejudice,” 42, no. 7 (April 1999): 1131,

[5] Herek and Capitanio, 1132.

[6] How to Survive a Plague, DVD, directed by David France (2012; United States, Public Square Films).

[7] John d’Addario, “AIDS, ART and Activism: Remembering Gran Fury,” Hyperallergic, December 1, 2011,

[8] United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, DVD, directed by Jim Hubbard (2012; United States: ACT UP Oral History Project and Film Collaborative).

[9] United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, DVD, directed by Jim Hubbard (2012; United States: ACT UP Oral History Project and Film Collaborative).

[10] United in Anger: A History of ACT UP.

[11] Lawrence K. Altman, “Heterosexuals and AIDS: New Data Examined,” The New York Times, January 22, 1985,

[12] Timothy R. Chadborn, Valerie C. Delpech, Caroline A. Sabin, Katy Sinka, and Barry G. Evans, “The late diagnosis and consequent short-term mortality of HIV-infected heterosexuals,” AIDS 20, no. 18 (November 2006): 2372, file:///Users/laurensaperstein/Downloads/The_late_diagnosis_and_consequent_short_term.14.pdf.

[13] David Salyer, “Getting it Straight: HIV as a Gay Disease Is a Myth The Refuses to Die,” The Body, March 1999,

[14] Celia W. Dugger, “Clinton Makes Up for Lost Time in Battling AIDS,” The New York Times, August 29, 2006,

[15] Theo G. M. Sandfort and Brian Dodge, “And Then There was the Down Low”: Introduction to Black and Latino Male Bisexualities,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (October 2008): 639,

[16] “A Secret Sex World: Living on the Down Low,” Oprahshow, April 16, 2004,

[17] David Wyatt Seal and Anke A. Ehrhardt, “HIV-Prevention-Related Sexual Health Promotion for Heterosexual Men in the United States: Pitfalls and Recommendations,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 33, no. 3 (June 200): 217,

[18] David Wyatt Seal and Anke A. Ehrhardt, “HIV-Prevention-Related Sexual Health Promotion for Heterosexual Men in the United States: Pitfalls and Recommendations,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 33, no. 3 (June 200): 217,

[19] Sulaiman Olanrewaju Adebayo and Tosin Tunrayo Olonisakin, “Influence of Sex and Gender-Role on Safe-Sex Behaviors,” Global Science Research Journal 2, no. 4 (November 2014): 52,


Adebayo, Sulaiman Olanrewaju and Tosin Tunrayo Olonisakin. “Influence of Sex and Gender-Role on Safe-Sex Behaviors.” Global Science Research Journal 2, no. 4 (November 2014): 50-55,

Altman, Lawrence K. “Heterosexuals and AIDS: New Data Examined.” The New York Times, January 22, 1985.

“A Secret Sex World: Living on the Down Low.” Oprahshow. April 16, 2004.

“A Timeline of HIV and AIDS.” HIV Gov. 2016.

Chadborn, Timothy R., Valerie C. Delpech, Caroline A. Sabin, Katy Sinka, and Barry G. Evans. “The late diagnosis and consequent short-term mortality of HIV-infected heterosexuals.” AIDS 20, no. 18 (November 2006): 2371-2379, file:///Users/laurensaperstein/Downloads/The_late_diagnosis_and_consequent_short_term.14.pdf.

d’Addario, John. “AIDS, ART and Activism: Remembering Gran Fury.” Hyperallergic. December 1, 2011.

Dugger, Celia W. “Clinton Makes Up for Lost Time in Battling AIDS.” The New York Times, August 29, 2006.

Gibson, Caitlin. “A disturbing new glimpse at the Reagan administration’s indifference to AIDS.” The Washington Post, December 1, 2015.

Herek, Gregory M. and John P. Capitanio, “AIDS Stigma and Sexual Prejudice.” 42, no. 7 (April 1999): 1131-1147, Staff, “History of AIDS,” History. 2017.

Salyer, David. “Getting it Straight: HIV as a Gay Disease Is a Myth The Refuses to Die.” The Body. March 1999.

Sandfort, Theo G. M. and Brian Dodge, “And Then There was the Down Low”: Introduction to Black and Latino Male Bisexualities.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37, no. 5 (October 2008): 639-682,

Seal, David Wyatt and Anke A. Ehrhardt. “HIV-Prevention-Related Sexual Health Promotion for Heterosexual Men in the United States: Pitfalls and Recommendations.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 33, no. 3 (June 200): 211-222,

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. DVD. Directed by Jim Hubbard. 2012; United States: ACT UP Oral History Project and Film Collaborative.

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