Changing the Face of AIDS

As early as 1983, scientists knew how HIV was spread. However, getting that information out to the public was proving problematic. The first hurdle had been getting any news coverage at all. The second challenge came with the words reporters used to cover the disease. Although scientists knew the disease was only transmittable through blood and certain bodily fluids, including semen and vaginal fluids. Reporters were wary of using words like “semen,” for fear that it would offend their audience. It was seen as impolite for adults to reference sexual acts or use proper biological names. Reporters used euphemisms instead, usually saying “bodily fluids” rather than “semen” or “blood.” However, this usage caused undue confusion and panic in the general public who were left to wonder if “bodily fluids” also meant saliva and sweat. Could a clammy handshake lead to infection? This kind of misinformation led to people like Ryan White being both feared and bullied. In the media’s attempt to avoid panic and offense, they created a climate of confusion and fear around AIDS that only helped the disease spread more.


When Ryan White was just three days old, he was diagnosed with a severe form of hemophilia that required him to have weekly blood transfusions. Even with his condition, Ryan was a normal kid growing up in Kokomo, Indiana. In 1984, though, his doctors realized the pneumonia the middle schooler was battling was really HIV. His mother was told that he would live only another three to six months, but, to everyone’s surprise, by 1985, White was doing much better.

Ryan White (left) surrounded by friends at his new high school, Hamilton Heights in Arcadia, Indiana. Ryan’s struggle with his old school earned him notoriety as the "new face of AIDS.”

White wanted to go back to school because he missed his friends. Luckily for him, his doctor cleared him to return. However, the parents of his classmates weren’t pleased with the decision. They’d knew little about HIV and even less about how it was transmitted. Parents feared White could infect their children. Even though doctors assured the school and parents that White could not infect other students just by going to school with them, almost half of the parents of his middle school and even some teachers signed a petition asking the school to ban him. The school refused to readmit White, so his mother took legal action and won the right for him to return to school.

When White was allowed to return to school, many parents took their children out. As a result, White had few friends. The school, which still didn’t understand that he wasn’t a risk, wouldn’t allow him to use the restroom with other students and forced him to use disposable utensils at lunch. White’s belongings were often vandalized with antigay slurs. The family eventually moved after someone opened fire on their home.

After his experiences in middle school, White was understandably nervous to start high school. He was happy to learn that, prior to his enrollment, the students of his new high school had been educated about AIDS. These students weren’t afraid to shake his hand.


As news of White’s legal battle with the school and the harassment he and his family faced spread, the public perception of AIDS began to change. Those who were infected through blood transfusions were now seen as “innocent victims” by the public. While Christian political pundits continued to proclaim that AIDS was a punishment from God, White pushed back. In an interview with the New York Times after his death, his mother, Jeanne, said, “Ryan always said, ‘I’m just like everyone else with AIDS, no matter how I got it.’ And he would never have lived as long as he did without the gay community.”

Although White wanted to be a typical kid, he felt a responsibility to speak up for others with AIDS. He participated in numerous charity events for children with AIDS and took every chance he could to educate people about his disease. The media attention also garnered him some celebrity friends like Elton John, who became a close family friend. In spite of his doctor’s initial prediction that White would live only six months, he surpassed all expectations and lived another five years after his diagnosis. He died on April 8, 1990, only a month before graduating from high school.

After his death, Congress enacted the Ryan White CARE Act, which is the largest federally funded program for people with HIV/AIDS. The program is meant to help low-income patients receive the care and medical attention they require.

White’s activism helped chip away at the discrimination that surrounded AIDS. He showed the American people that diseases didn’t target certain groups, nor were they punishments from God. The media that covered his struggle also highlighted the president’s silence on the epidemic that was infecting more and more Americans every day.


On May 31, 1987, President Reagan finally addressed the nation about the epidemic that was in its sixth year. His friend and fellow movie star Elizabeth Taylor had become a staunch AIDS activist. The charity she and several prominent AIDS doctors had founded, known as the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), was holding a fundraiser, and it was there that President Reagan made his first official remark about the epidemic.

President Reagan’s speech mentioned injection drug users and hemophiliacs but completely neglected to mention the impact of HIV and AIDS on the LGBTQ+ community. He offered little factual information about what the disease was or how Americans could prevent infection. In terms of containing the disease, Reagan’s speech offered no more than a dream that was impossible to achieve. But with the federal government no longer able to ignore the epidemic, things slowly began to change.

In this 1987 photo, philanthropist Joan Kroc (left) donates a million dollars to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the organization founded by actress Elizabeth Taylor (right).


Once President Reagan could no longer continue to overlook the epidemic, he organized the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic. It was the commission’s job to study the epidemic and advise the administration on the best way to combat it. Reagan asked Dr. Eugene Mayberry, the CEO of the Mayo Clinic, who had no experience with the disease, to lead the task force. The only person he appointed to the commission who had any real experience with AIDS was the openly gay geneticist Frank Lilly, a man who sat on the board of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. After Mayberry stepped down, Reagan tapped James D. Watkins, a US Navy admiral, to lead the council.

To the surprise of many, under Watkins’s guidance, the commission was able to put together a comprehensive report that recommended close to five hundred steps the US government could take in combating AIDS. One of the most important recommendations the commission made was to create a federal antidiscrimination law for people with AIDS. Watkins understood that people feared the discrimination Ryan White and the gay community faced and, as a result, avoided being tested or treated. The commission explained that the stigma of AIDS needed to be lifted to effectively combat the disease.


Rock Hudson was a famous movie star in the 1950s and 1960s who had been good friends with President Reagan from the time they were young actors together. Hudson had stayed at the White House several times.

Although most of his peers in Hollywood knew that Hudson was gay, he kept it hidden from the public. It was the only way for him to continue working in Hollywood. That is why, in 1985, the world was shocked to learn that Hudson had passed away of complications due to AIDS.

The media coverage of his illness and sexuality was largely sympathetic. It forced many Americans to reevaluate their views on homosexuality and AIDS. Hudson, like Ryan White, made AIDS victims more than a demographic discussed in newspapers. People began to realize that if someone as admirable and well known as Rock Hudson could die from AIDS, anyone could.

Hudson was aware of the impact his celebrity status brought to the perception of AIDS. Before his death, he said, “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth"

As the commission suggested, the Reagan administration worked to inform those who had received infected blood transfusions of their risk, and it increased funding for the CDC and NIH to research the disease. However, the Reagan administration refused to enact any antidiscrimination laws and ignored many of the other steps the commission outlined to get a handle on the epidemic.


Dr. C. Everett Koop had been the surgeon general for both of Reagan’s presidential terms. At the start of the AIDS epidemic, he repeatedly attempted to get permission to address the disease; and yet, every time, he was denied for reasons that were never fully explained to him. A large part of Koop’s agenda was to remove the moral arguments that hindered the response to the epidemic. He stated, “My position on AIDS was dictated by scientific integrity and Christian compassion.... My whole career has been dedicated to prolonging lives, especially the lives of people who were weak and powerless, the disenfranchised who needed an advocate: newborns who needed surgery, handicapped children, unborn children, people with AIDS.”

Admiral James Watkins, chairman of the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic, urged President Reagan to declare AIDS a public health emergency.

Surgeon General C. Everett Koop holds a news conference to announce that the government will mail every American household a pamphlet with information about HIV/AIDS.

Koop, who had been forced to remain silent during the first four years of the epidemic, had a better understanding than most of just how deadly mixing religious arguments with medicine was to the sick and to people who refused to understand the problem. In 1988, Koop was finally allowed to mail brochures of information about HIV/AIDS and the best preventative measures to take to every home in America. It was a step most European nations had taken several years earlier. Conservative groups criticized the brochure for advocating safe sex rather than abstinence and for mentioning oral and anal sex. Some LGBTQ+ rights groups felt that the brochure’s focus on anal sex in a way that described it as higher risk sex would cause more discrimination. Despite the criticism he faced from the public and the roadblocks put in place by the executive branch, Koop fought hard to get necessary information to the American people. He encouraged schools to begin sex education classes that included information about safe sex for students in grades three and up. Koop understood that without a vaccine the only way to prevent new infections was to educate the nation.

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