THE AIDS CRISIS
The Bedroom is a place for sleeping, for resting, for intimacy and for dreaming. The bedroom in this case is less a metaphor for the topic we are about to cover and more of a hope on our end that you are wrapped up in a duvet, nestling cosily into something soft as you read this next section because it is not easy reading. Yes, we are about to take a look at the Aids Crisis.
The Aids Crisis
It is impossible to write about the New York Ballroom scene in the 1980’s without touching on the Aids Crisis. It is thought that HIV/Aids was already around in the 1960’s in the US but that it didn’t reach a crisis point until the 1980’s. In early cases of the virus doctors thought it was a strange pneumonia.
When the numbers of gay men contracting the virus increased the media started calling it gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) or “gay cancer”. People mistakenly thought there was an inherent link between gayness and the disease, people thought that gayness caused it. Of course this was a devastating association for an already marginalised community who had been fighting the beliefs about gayness being unnatural and a sickness for a long time.
People were catching and dying of AIDS really rapidly. For context, in 1981 (at the beginning of the epidemic) there were 337 reported cases of individuals with a severe immune deficiency in the US. 130 of those people had died by the end of the year.
In 1982 the Los Angeles Times published the first front page story on the crises with the headline “Mysterious Fever Now An Epidemic”. That same year, the Centre for Disease Control establishes the name Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and identifies 4 risk factors; male homosexuality, intravenous drug use, Haitian Origin and Hemophilia A (a rare blood clot disorder). Of course this reasoning has disastrous implications for the four singled out groups. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis Centre was also founded that same year and had over 100 phone calls on their first night of opening.
In 1983 the number of reported cases doubled, more Aids Clinics were opened and the first AIDS discrimination case was brought to court by a medical practitioner facing eviction for treating patients with AIDS. Larry Kramer wrote an article for the New York Native calling out the doctors for not really knowing what’s going on and all the misinformation they had been spreading...
In the article he calls out hospital staff for being scared of contracting AIDS from their patients and treating them “as lepers”. He calls out scientists and the government for their slow and underwhelming response to a growing crises that had been happening for 2 years already by 1983, saying that this neglect was partially rooted in the fact that the most affected community was a marginalised one and calling on gay community to rise up in outrage. In 1983 they still didn’t know how it was transmitted, how to treat it, what it truly was... and the numbers were doubling.
“There are now (1983) 1,112 cases of serious acquired immune deficiency syndrome. When we first became worried, there were only 41. In only 28 days, from January 13 to February 9, there were 164 new cases—and 73 more dead. The total death tally is now 418. Twenty percent of all cases were registered this January alone. There have been 195 dead in New York City from among 526 victims. Of all serious AIDS cases, 47.3 percent are in the New York metropolitan area.” - 1112 and Counting by Larry Kramer for the New York Native
In 1984, the number of Aids cases in the US more than tripled again. Jumping from a total of 2,807 cases reported by the end of 1983 to 7,239 cases reported by the end of ‘84. Of those 7239 cases over 5500 had died. In 1984 scientists finally concluded that AIDS is caused by a retrovirus they call Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
We are not going to give you all of the annual statistics, but suffice to say that the numbers were rising exponentially and alarmingly. In 1986 there were more new cases reported than in all the prior years combined and a CDC report showed that on average AIDS patients die just 15 months after the disease is diagnosed. That same year Larry Kramer formed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) a direct action political group formed to pressure governments and scientists, pharmaceutical companies to find better treatments and testing processes for AIDS.
In 1986 Debra Fraser-Howze also founded the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS to educate and empower Black leaders to fight AIDS and other healthcare disparities in their communities (because of course AIDS was being associated with Blackness).
By 1990 there had been over 169,000 cases reported in the US and over 12,000 of those people had died of the virus. This is a staggering statistic when you compare it with the 7,239 cases reported by the end of ‘84, twice as many Americans as those who died in the Vietnam War.
Imagine living in Black gay community in New York at that time. Misinformation was spreading like wildfire. The government was slow to action and the medical neglect was rampant. People were confused and hopeless. For a long time there didn’t seem to be either a cause nor a cure for the virus. Young people were dying quickly and in droves, and already marginalised groups were being further stigmatised and targeted by society at large. The fear about the virus was absolutely immense.
It was against this backdrop, almost on a parallel timeline that Ballroom was emerging and growing. Ballroom community was struck hard with AIDS and felt the immediate effect of the virus. The Ballroom scene lost hundreds of people. The houses have been an active support system for many in the community who suffered and died from HIV/ AIDS. However, it was House of Latex that really revolutionised HIV outreach in Ballroom community...
House of Latex
They House of Latex Project was born out of conversations between Hector Xtravaganza and the Gay Men’s Health Centre (GMHC). They GMHC was instrumental in providing services, information and condoms to the Ballroom scene. They had a table at the balls offering condoms and information on HIV/AIDS. At first people really didn’t want to go near the table because of stigma, but they persisted and eventually people suggested that it might be more effective to make a house and host a ball. In 1991 the first House of Latex Ball happened, it was really a kind of health fair and the focus was on HIV/ AIDS. The House of Latex was founded as a call to action in the Ballroom community, to bridge the gap between HIV-STI prevention and ballroom culture.
There were also many Ballroom community members who were, and remain very active and outspoken in the spreading of information about HIV/AIDS prevention. Father Luna Luis Oritz, Grandfather of the house of Khan has been HIV positive for over 20 years and is still an active advocate for the cause.
We’d like to end this section by reminding everyone that HIV/AIDS is still a widespread issue and many people still do not have access to the medical treatment they need.
HIV/AIDS citations and sources:
For annual statistics and a timeline of the Virus check out this NY aids memorial website: https://www.nycaidsmemorial.org/timeline
American Foundation for Aids Research: https://www.amfar.org/
Gay Men’s Health Crises Centre: https://www.gmhc.org/
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power aka ACT UP: https://actupny.com/
Prevention in the Ballroom (documentary): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIUJT4ZT6I8