World AIDS day

This World AIDS Day, we are forty years into a global epidemic, the death toll from which can never be known with certainty. After the shocks and tragedies of the first decade of AIDS, and driven by the activism and research of people with AIDS themselves, treatments and preventatives have taken AIDS from a terminal to a chronic condition: protease inhibitor drugs halt the virus in its tracks, pre-and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP) can prevent infection altogether, and contain the virus following exposure. There are drugs which can suppress the viral load of an infected person so that they never develop symptoms and cannot transmit the virus to others (so long as they have continued access to the medication). The degree to which AIDS remains a deadly illness is the degree to which people are aware of and can access these preventative methods and medications.

The problem of AIDS has in some ways changed dramatically. In other ways, however, it remains the same. The fight against AIDS has always been two-fold: to get drugs into bodies, and to get reliable, accurate, actionable information to people so that they could protect themselves and each other against the disease. Despite the huge clinical advances in the past forty years, AIDS stigma is still significant and misinformation remains prevalent.

Going into the fifth decade of the struggle against AIDS, it’s important to celebrate where we are and how far we’ve come, and a great way to do that is to see where we’ve been.

In 1990, the second decade of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic was starting. Reliable tests had been developed for HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus), and treatments with the power to change the course of the disease were emerging. Although the prevention of transmission was well-understood in clinical contexts and among the most at-risk people (gay men, bisexual men, sex workers, and intravenous drug users– by no means separate categories), the disease was widely regarded as a judgement, a boogeyman, and a punchline. Myths, misunderstanding, misinformation, and outright lies about AIDS were mainstream. Homophobic violence, never absent in the postwar era, had become alarmingly prevalent with the new justification of AIDS scaremongering. Gay people were still seen largely as a phenomenon of big cities, an alien element created by urban density, far from small-town or “heartland” life, and AIDS was openly regarded as evidence that homosexuality was immoral and dangerous, and that queer people were themselves inherently dangerous: to themselves, to others, to the fabric of society itself.

So, given those factors– the geographical distance, the burden of difference, the fog of discrimination– what did students in Iowa think about AIDS in 1990? There is no one answer, but a piece of that puzzle can be found in RS 10/6, the Department of Industrial Education and Technology Records. In this seemingly unlikely place, in subgroup RS 10/6/5, titled “Creative Components and Field Reports,” you’ll find “The Iowa Student Survey of AIDS/HIV related Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behaviors Report,” filed by June M. Harris in 1990.

What’s in it? Well, that would be telling, but here’s a clue from the results section:

For more on the state of HIV/AIDS care, including important information about sexual and personal health, risk management, prevention, personal safety, and living with HIV/AIDS for people of all genders and orientations, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis remains a vital resource. More information about accessing pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis in Iowa, see PrEPIowa. Resources about HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and support in Iowa are available through governmental and community organizations. HIV/AIDS is a virus, a health condition, and a fact of life: it is neither a punishment nor a death sentence, and it need not be a catastrophe.

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