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PFLAG Perspective: A retrospective look at the AIDS crisis

When Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004, it had been 23 years - to the day - since AIDS was first diagnosed on June 5, 1981.

My friend Jeri put out her American flag that day. She also printed the names of friends who had died of AIDS during the Reagan years and tacked them up along her front porch [see photo below left]. Each name was on an 8 ½ x 11 sheet with a rainbow flag background. They took up half of the porch and the columns as well.

The early 1980s was a time when thousands of people became devastatingly ill. With no treatment, there was often only months between diagnosis and death.

Jeri was illustrating the deep personal toll the crisis had taken at a time when something needed to be done and the Reagan administration did little to nothing to help.

This lack of action contributed to a crisis that is now a pandemic, said to affect 33 million people, worldwide.

Bookend Reagan’s death with that of Elizabeth Taylor, on March 23, 2011. She first began speaking out about HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, when there was still a great deal of fear and stigma surrounding the disease.

A look back

The first identification of AIDS was among gay men in Los Angeles. These first associations were so strong that the first name for the disease was Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID).

The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) use of the “4-h” moniker (Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users) can be taken as a measure of both the medical and social ignorance of the time. When it became clear the disease was spreading beyond racial, ethnic, and sexual preference boundaries, the more balanced term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was coined in 1982.

But in the intervening years, AIDS got away from us. As one who followed the CDC statistics in the 80s and 90s, I watched the inexorable spread across gender, age, and national boundaries.

AIDS is now a pandemic.

In 2007, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated that 33.2 million people worldwide had AIDS that year; 2.1 million people had been killed by AIDS in the course of that year (including 330,000 children), and 76% of those deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to UNAIDS 2009 report, some 60 million people worldwide have been infected, with some 25 million deaths, and there are 14 million orphaned children in southern Africa alone, since the epidemic began.

In the intervening years, progress was made to find treatments that at least would extend the lifetime of AIDS patients.

Without treatment, the net median survival time after infection with HIV is estimated to be 9 to 11 years, depending on the HIV subtype, according to Wikipedia.

The median survival rate after diagnosis of AIDS -- in resource-limited settings where treatment is not available -- ranges between 6 and 19 months, depending upon the study.

In areas where it is widely available, the development of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) as effective therapy for HIV infection and AIDS, has reduced the death rate from this disease by 80%, and raised the life expectancy for a newly diagnosed HIV-infected person to about 20 years.

Still, the state of AIDS research and funding today rests on the achievements of a vast number of people who fought to free the public perception of AIDS of its homophobic roots and humanize the disease. Elizabeth Taylor was one of these individuals.

A true warrior for the cause, right up until the very end

As ABC’s Sheila Marikar noted in an article about the screen legend, Elizabeth Taylor told Larry King Live in 2003: "We all heard of it and nobody was doing anything about it. And it made me so angry that we all sat around the dining room table, 'Isn't this awful, isn't this tragic? Oh, my god.' But nobody was doing anything. And that really angered me so much. This is before we heard about Rock."

"Rock" was Rock Hudson, Taylor's beloved friend and fellow star ("Giant," for example) who died in 1985 of complications from AIDS. [See photo of the two above left.]

Taylor was the first big celebrity to use her fame to advocate for better public health policy and raise funds for HIV/AIDS treatment, services, and research. While she started local, appearing at the first major AIDS benefit for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), in 1985, she became the founding international chairperson of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

In those dark times, Taylor used the light of her celebrity to draw mainstream media attention to the government’s failure to respond to the AIDS crisis. She boldly stood with the LGBT community to urge public support for better treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS.

She traveled around the world – she spoke at conferences, visited people with AIDS in hospital wards, testified before Congress to ensure support for the Ryan White CARE Act and addressed the General Assembly at the United Nations on World AIDS Day.

In addition to supporting the work of numerous HIV/AIDS organizations, in 1991 she established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, with a focus on direct services for people living with HIV/AIDS throughout the world.

So much of this was a part of her, that her family requested that any memorial donations benefit that fund. Additional details about Elizabeth Taylor and her AIDS efforts can be found in this month’s PFLAG newsletter, which you can download from our (pflag.com) homepage.

Next month: The AIDS Fight

PFLAG Activities

The local Chapter of PFLAG meets the 4th Monday of every month. If you'd like to get on the agenda, call the Help Line at (888) 398-0006. For more information about how to volunteer or become a member, visit our website.

Meetings are held at the First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley, 2111 Camino del Rio South. There will be signage to direct you.

Rock Hudson - Liz Taylor photo credit: Warner Bros,

Mark Thompson has been a PFLAG member for five years, including two years as co-president (with his wife Karen) and a year as treasurer. He says his experience of helping in the LGBT community has been one of the most rewarding he’s ever had. Mark has lived in San Diego since the late 1960s, is a land use/environmental consultant, and is currently working on a novel. He can be reached at mthompson22@gmail.com.