The Pants on Fire claim that it was ‘inconceivable’ gay men were seen as ‘pariahs’

PolitiFact | To suggest that gay men and intravenous drug users were not considered pariahs during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s is extraordinarily inaccurate.
Demonstrators hold up a rainbow flag as they march outside of the White House during the Equality March for Unity and Pride parade in Washington D.C., June 11, 2017.
Demonstrators hold up a rainbow flag as they march outside of the White House during the Equality March for Unity and Pride parade in Washington D.C., June 11, 2017. [ JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP | Getty Images North America ]
Published Nov. 11, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has brought back discussion of an earlier pandemic: The AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Dennis Prager, a conservative commentator, said in a Nov. 8 interview with Newsmax that it was “inconceivable” that gay men would have been seen as “pariahs” during the AIDS crisis.

Prager said, “During the AIDS crisis, can you imagine if gay men and intravenous drug users … had they been pariahs the way the non-vaccinated are? But it would’ve been inconceivable.”

Prager did not respond to an inquiry for this article. But we checked with multiple historians of the period and each was mystified by the characterization that the AIDS epidemic somehow spared gay men and intravenous drug users from being treated as outcasts. Gay men were pariahs in public opinion, under the law, in the media, and among government officials.

Prager’s comment “is entirely ahistorical and inconceivably upside down,” said David France, a filmmaker and author of the book, “How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS.”

“Willfully ignorant,” said Eric Marcus, who addressed the first dozen years of the AIDS crisis in his audio memoir,

“Utterly ridiculous,” said Lillian Faderman, author of the 2016 book, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.”

Let’s walk through the evidence of how gay men, as well as intravenous drug users, were treated as pariahs during the years after 1981, when the virus that causes AIDS was first identified.

Survey data

The pariah status was traceable to two distinct, but linked, beliefs.

One concerned AIDS itself. Initially, the disease was poorly understood and appeared to be a death sentence. Even after it became clear that the virus could only be passed only by close contact of bodily fluids, it took years for many Americans to become comfortable in proximity to people who had the virus.

Charles Kaiser, the author of “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America,” recalls the era as being “a period of absolute terror” for gay men. Kaiser said he was so worried about finding out that he might be infected that he refused to take a screening test for “several years.” Only when his physician ran a test on him surreptitiously did he learn that he was negative.

One public watershed came in 1987, when Diana, the Princess of Wales, was photographed shaking hands with an AIDS patient at Middlesex Hospital in London. “She was the first famous person to be seen touching someone with AIDS in public,” Kaiser said. “That was six years of people with AIDS being literally untouchable.”

The second source of the pariah status was the fact that AIDS hit gay men the hardest. While cultural acceptance of gays and lesbians began to increase in the 1970s, majorities of Americans remained uncomfortable with homosexuality, even among family members. For many, the AIDS crisis only reinforced negative perceptions.

The pollster Gallup has twice asked the question, “Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?” In 1982, only 34 percent said it was acceptable, while 51 percent said it was not acceptable. When Gallup asked the question a decade later, only 38 percent said it was acceptable, while those who said it was not acceptable grew to 57 percent.

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Gallup also asked whether respondents thought “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal.” In four surveys taken during the AIDS crisis — twice in 1986, once in 1987, and once in 1988 — the response “should be legal” attracted the support of only between 32 percent and 35 percent, while “should not be legal” ranged from 54 percent to 57 percent.

Since then, sentiments have changed substantially. Earlier this year, Gallup asked the question, “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?” It found that 70 percent of respondents said such marriages should be recognized.

Legal restrictions

Legal restrictions on gay men and lesbians weren’t just preferred by a majority of Americans; they actually existed in most places in the United States.

In 1981, at the start of the AIDS crisis, “gay sex was illegal — sodomy laws were not federally overturned until 2003,” said Sarah Schulman, author of the 2021 book, “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.” Even in comparatively liberal New York City, gays and lesbians had few codified legal protections until 1986, Schulman said.

Also in 1986, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the right to consensual homosexual sex in the case Bowers vs. Hardwick, meaning that “in the middle of a mass-death experience, laws against gay sex were upheld,” Schulman said.

Randy Shilts, one of the early chroniclers of the AIDS crisis and the late author of the book “And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic,” wrote that by the beginning of 1983, “it was virtually an article of faith among homosexuals that they would somehow end up in concentration camps.” If this sounds overblown, Shilts countered that “humans who have been subjected to a lifetime of irrational bigotry on the part of mainstream society can be excused for harboring unreasonable fears. The general apathy that the United States had demonstrated towards the AIDS epidemic had only deepened the distrust between gays and heterosexuals.”

In 1986, fringe politician Lyndon LaRouche secured signatures from 700,000 California voters to place on the ballot a measure that would have made people with AIDS subject to being placed in quarantine camps.

“The initiative was leading in the polls until a concerted effort was made by the gay community and it was defeated,” Faderman said. Initially, many Californians “saw absolutely nothing wrong” with the idea, she said.

Public discourse

Public commentators regularly raised alarms about AIDS and people who had it.

In a 1983 opinion column in the New York Post, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan wrote that “the poor homosexuals ... have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” He went on to write that homosexuals should be barred from food handling jobs and that the Democratic Party’s decision to hold its 1984 convention in San Francisco would expose delegates, spouses and children to “homosexuals who belong to a community that is a common carrier of dangerous, communicable and sometimes fatal diseases.”

Three years later, fellow conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a column in the New York Times in which he urged that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”

For a time early in his career, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh had a regular feature that mocked people dying of AIDS. He stopped the segments after a few weeks and acknowledged that he had “missed the mark totally” and that they were “very insensitive to people who were dying,” according to a biography of Limbaugh by Ze’ev Chafets.

Sharp words had a real-world impact, Schulman said. In an era before hate crime laws, “street violence against gay people, called ‘gay bashing,’ was a regular occurrence, and gay people had no authority figure to turn to for protection or response,” she said.

Government indifference

Deaths from AIDS skyrocketed between 1981 and 1993, reaching almost 40,000 a year. But the government’s response was slow. While part of this was due to the difficulty of tackling a newly emergent disease, there were widespread indications that government officials — all the way up to the White House — were initially lackadaisical in their response. Critics attributed this attitude to a broadly felt discomfort with homosexuality.

In 1982, reporter Lester Kinsolving asked President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, about the epidemic at a White House press conference.

“I don’t know a thing about it,” Speakes said. When the reporter noted that the disease was becoming known as “the gay plague,” Speakes and reporters laughed. “I don’t have it. Do you?” Kinsolving continued asking about AIDS in White House briefings over three years; at one point, Speakes joked about the reporter’s “abiding interest” in “fairies.”

Reagan himself did not mention the word “AIDS” until the death of his old Hollywood friend Rock Hudson in 1985, Faderman wrote. Relations between the gay community and Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health were often tense, due to a perceived lack of aggressiveness of scientific research.

Such anger prompted the creation of the activist group ACT UP, which pushed government and scientific institutions to act more aggressively. And on the local level, a lack of trust helped give birth to a parallel health and support system for gay Americans, especially those with AIDS.

“The most important evidence of how poorly gay men were treated in that era was that LGBT people had to form their own organizations in order to respond to the collective absence of the federal government, the medical profession, public authorities, and even the media to address the crisis,” said Jim Downs, a Gettysburg College historian and author of the 2016 book “Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation.”

In New York City, for instance, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis started a “buddy” program to assign volunteers to people with AIDS, “just to hang out with them and keep them company, or run basic errands,” Schulman said.

Marcus recalled that when he was a volunteer for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, “I could only find one funeral home in Manhattan that would take the body of my client who had died from complications of AIDS. That was in December 1984.”

ACT UP also sought to change minds about intravenous drug users, another group that Prager cited in his Newsmax interview.

Seeing calls to abstinence as ineffective, ACT UP promoted the new concept of “harm reduction,” which was “based on the idea that ‘dead addicts cannot recover,’” Schulman said. ACT UP also advocated for needle exchanges in New York City. Despite initial public opposition, the approach eventually gained support and is now common, if at times controversial, across the country.

All told, institutions focused on AIDS and the needs of gay Americans “emerged in virtually every community throughout the U.S.,” Downs said. “LGBT people had to address the crisis on their own. They had to alert the public, they had to provide comfort and care to patients, they sought therapeutics, and they raised money for scientific research.”

The end of pariah status

The “hero” of the Reagan administration, Kaiser said, in reducing AIDS stigma was Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

In 1986, Reagan asked Koop to prepare a report on AIDS, which he delivered in October of that year. It explained the disease and the risk factors in a nonjudgmental way, and it urged that if abstinence wasn’t a realistic option, condoms should be used to stay disease-free.

“We are fighting a disease, not people,” Koop said. “Those who are already afflicted are sick people and need our care, as do all sick patients. The country must face this epidemic as a unified society. We must prevent the spread of AIDS while at the same time preserving our humanity and intimacy.”

Two years later, he sent the booklet “Understanding AIDS” to every household in the United States.

Ultimately, the science improved to the point that having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was no longer a death sentence. The first combination protease inhibitor, or AIDS” drug cocktail,” was unveiled in 1995 and became widely available the following year. “If you were HIV-positive and had access to the medicine, you would survive,” Kaiser said.

Today, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the U.S., and only a small fraction will die every year from AIDS.

Historians said that the federal government learned significant lessons from the AIDS crisis that were applied to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As soon as COVID-19 broke out, the government at all levels responded,” Downs said. “While some criticize how the government responded, or the fact that the federal government did not act as quickly or as effectively, the point was that COVID patients did not have to turn to street activism and public demonstrations to raise awareness that COVID was a crisis. The media, the medical professionals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization all articulated that it was a crisis immediately. That was not the case for HIV.”

France agreed that Prager’s comparison between the AIDS crisis and the coronavirus pandemic is wrong and that there’s “no moral equivalence.”

“People rejecting vaccine mandates do so by choice,” he said. “There are many regulations in modern life. All the other vaccines are also mandatory. Clothing is mandated by law. Licenses and related training courses and tests are mandated for driving, cutting hair, practicing medicine. Car insurance is a requirement. Some jobs require uniforms. All of these policies have rational bases. There are consequences for any infraction, just as there is for vaccine refusers.”

Our ruling

Prager said, “During the AIDS crisis, can you imagine if gay men and intravenous drug users … had they been pariahs the way the non-vaccinated are? But it would’ve been inconceivable.”

To suggest that gay men and intravenous drug users were not considered pariahs during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s is entirely inaccurate. The evidence of the opposite abounds: contemporary survey data on attitudes about homosexuality; the existence of laws against consensual gay sex; the near-passage of an AIDS quarantine law in California; calls by prominent commentators for banning HIV-positive people from certain jobs or even tattooing them; jokes about the disease by White House officials; and the need for the gay community to build their own institutions to grapple with the disease because existing institutions were insufficient.

We rate the statement Pants on Fire.