Gay philanthropist, historian and writer David Benkof explains why he thinks that AIDS is a gay disease, despite the community’s attempt to claim otherwise throughout the years. Do you agree?
Like other Jewish historians and community members, I was bothered by the Trump Administration’s universalist Holocaust statement papering over the fact that, by and large, the Holocaust was about Jews. As a gay man who has written extensively about LGBT history, the episode reminded me of a similar bit of amnesia gay people have fostered about ourselves: that “AIDS is not a gay disease.”
The slogan was originally an understandable retort to haters who blamed us for our own suffering. But gays aren’t downtrodden anymore. For the sake of clear thinking about policy, respect for victims, and well-earned pride in gay history, it’s time we just say it: much as the Holocaust was a Jewish event, AIDS in the United States is a gay disease.
Of course straight people suffer and die from HIV-related illness, just as about 200,000 Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis. But “AIDS is not a gay disease” was a situational political strategy, not a scholarly consensus. It was an epidemiological and historical obfuscation designed to gain sympathy and funding for the illness in an era when gays were outsiders. Yet it remains in 2017, repeated almost as a mantra anytime someone “outrageously” links AIDS with homosexuality.
But of course AIDS is linked with homosexuality. Even today, gay men receive more than two-thirds of HIV diagnoses, and earlier in the epidemic that number was even higher. Gay men are maybe 2 percent of the American population, but 55 percent of Americans living with HIV. Men who have sex with men are more than 60 times more likely to contract HIV than those who don’t.