HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and early ’90s
by Brandon Tietz
I knew someone who died from HIV/AIDS. That’s not a call for pity. It was a long time ago—way back in the late 1980s or early ’90s when most of the general population thought you could catch it like a cold. In fact, I really didn’t know the person who died too well because of that specific brand of hypochondria.
My parents and grandparents would say to me, “Don’t get too close to Chris,” if he was ever in the house, probably thinking a cough or sneeze would contaminate my 8-year-old body. If I shook his hand, I was instructed to wash them at the earliest opportunity. If he used the bathroom, it was scrubbed clean that very same day. Outside of putting me in a Hazmat suit, they took every precaution.
My family meant well but was totally paranoid because they didn’t understand what they were dealing with. Their train of thought was basically, “Chris has AIDS. AIDS kills people. We need to be careful around this guy so we don’t get it, too.”
The peculiar part about his entire thing is I didn’t even know Chris had HIV/AIDS at the time. Germs were a concept I was familiar with but explaining AIDS to a kid might have been a bit heavy. I found out after the fact when I was already deep into my teens and Chris had passed away several years ago. My mother and I were discussing AIDS—I can’t remember why—but that’s when she said “Oh, your uncle’s friend had AIDS.”
Note the past tense “had.” In those days, the only time a person talked about AIDS in the past tense was if someone died from it and that’s what had happened to Chris. He was also gay, which reinforced the stigma that AIDS is a “homosexual’s virus” or “something junkies get from sharing needles.”
The ’80s was a period of fear because there was no cure, no real treatment, and rampant misinformation about HIV/AIDS was running wild. People thought they could get it from toilet seats, kissing and casual contact. Rumors of how it’s transferred spread and families like mine believed them.
It wasn’t until the ’90s when we finally started to get our shit together. We got more educated. We started to draw the line between reality and myth. Nurses from local hospitals came to schools with pamphlets that bore only the facts. We were still afraid, but at least it dispelled most of the hearsay about the virus being a “gays-only super-killer.”
Straight people could get it, too. That point was illustrated in 1991 when NBA great Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive. Even with all his millions to afford treatments, he went on record to say he believed at the time it was a death sentence. It kicked up the fear again.
Then TV shows like “The Real World (San Francisco)” and “Beverly Hills 90210” featured cast members and characters dying from AIDS, as did the movie “Philadelphia.”
Real people were getting it as were fictional characters. Our nation was rife with paranoia, to the degree that some of my classmates were getting blood-tested because their parents “just wanted to be sure.”
Meanwhile, the media never failed to weigh in with their two cents. When people are scared of something, they pay attention, and the media knew that an AIDS/HIV story always elevated the ratings. Collectively, it was a time of anxiety.
I’d experience it again with other trending viruses like SARS, Ebola, N1H1 and Avian Flu. But HIV/AIDS takes the cake for staying power throughout the decades. Even though I only knowingly came into contact with one person with HIV/AIDS, I spent the majority of my pre-adult years in a culture that made you look for it in everyone. It was the reason to wear condoms. It was the reason to recoil if someone started bleeding in your vicinity. It was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and I openly reflect back on this to show how far we’ve come.
In 2017, HIV/AIDS isn’t the death sentence it used to be. We have a better understanding of how it works and more effective treatments, treatments that have kept Magic Johnson alive for 26 years. There’s still no outright cure, but medical advances and technology are getting us closer all the time—from lasers that zap HIV cells to artificial molecules designed to block them.
Awareness has never been higher and much of that can be attributed to the many organizations that are dedicated to educate and raise money to fight HIV/AIDS. That’s why AIDS Walk Kansas City is such an important event. It’s one of the big reasons we’ve gone from a state of paranoia and fear to giving those afflicted a fighting chance.
The 29th annual AIDS Walk Kansas City takes place on Saturday, April 29 at Theis Park. Hopefully, some of what I’ve written will compel you to participate or donate to the cause. We’ve come a long way since the 1980s and ’90s, but the battle isn’t over yet.
To learn more, please visit aidswalkkansascity.org.