Sunday 1 December 2013

World AIDS Day

To round off my year of science, technology and Ologies of the Month I’m looking at virology and concentrating on one specific virus which has affected the lgbt community, and continues to affect, more than any other in the past 30 years or more – HIV and AIDS.

While it would be easy and concentrate throughout December on the fears and the loss created by both HIV and AIDS it can also provide hope and inspiration to those who have these illnesses.

At this time of year many organisations, publications and websites compile lists of people they consider to have made the biggest impact in the previous 12 months. The lgbt community is no stranger to this idea, with Out magazine’s annual “Out 100” and the Pink List produced by the “Independent on Sunday”. There’s also “POZ” magazine’s “POZ 100”. This is an annual life of people whose contributions to HIV/AIDS research or activism has been outstanding, not only in the previous 12 months but sometimes over a number of years. Last year’s POZ 100 is my inspiration for my series of HIV/AIDS articles. This year’s POZ 100 can be found here.

Using the sections on the 2012 POZ list – Seekers, Hunters, Defenders and Soldiers – I’ve looked for people who are working in the specific fields given and selected a handful of people, past and present, to give a representative view of the group. Not all of the people are lgbt, and not all of them are obvious choices. I want to provide as wide a variety of people as possible.

The word AIDS has acquired the same reputation as that of cancer when it comes to being diagnosed, even more so in the epidemic years of the 1980s when so many AIDS-related deaths were being recorded. The story behind the creation of the name AIDS involves one of the earliest unsung heroes of AIDS research.

Here’s something to ponder on. Would the fight against AIDS have become such a major part of world history if it hadn’t occurred during the lifetimes of the most influential gay activists in the 1980s? Would there have been the same response to AIDS had it appeared before the Stonewall Riots of 1969? Society’s attitudes to the gay community between 1969 and 1982 had changed a lot. There was still a lot of bigotry and homophobia among the Establishment and governments, but the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s meant that some people who had foot-holds in the Establishment were willing to come out as gay, even if it meant losing their job. Would they have been prepared to come out voluntarily if they had the same careers before 1969?

One person among many who straddled the period from Gay Rights to AIDS activism, and had the added bonus of having a doctorate in biology, biochemistry and genetics, was Bruce Voeller (1934-1994).

Before the Stonewall Riots Bruce Voeller was a married father of 3 children, and an assistant Professor of Biology at the Rockefeller Institute. He was 29. He recognised his homosexuality and was divorced from his wife in 1971. His activism began immediately after he was refused access to his children. Bruce took his case to the US Supreme Court. It wasn’t until 1974 that he succeeded – on condition that his children never met any of Bruce’s partners or that he speaks of his activism to his children.

In 1969 Bruce co-founded the Gay Activists Alliance but left in 1973 over differences in campaign strategies and methods. He resigned his professorship at Rockefeller to co-found the National Gay (later Lesbian and Gay) Task Force. With the Task Force he helped to arrange the first White House meeting between the President and gay activist leaders in 1977.

Bruce left the Task Force in 1978 to co-found with his partner the Mariposa Education and Research Foundation, returning to his scientific roots. Mariposa’s purpose was to study homosexuality and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This meant that when the AIDS crisis emerged after 1980 Bruce was one of the best-informed experts around with any knowledge of how AIDS could spread so quickly.

It was Bruce Voeller more than anyone else, through his research into STDs, who realised that AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease”. At the time the disease was only associated with gay men and, consequently, was called Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency (GRID). Bruce saw GRID as an inaccurate name and because some non-gay or sexually-transmitted cases were appearing he encouraged the use of the name Acquired Immuno-Deficieny Syndrome (AIDS) instead, reflecting it’s non-gender-specific and no-sexual nature.

At a meeting in Washington DC on 27th July 1982 between the Centre for Disease Control, gay community leaders, doctors, and federal officials the name AIDS was officially adopted in place of GRID.

Bruce continued to research into AIDS, also writing many articles and appearing before congressional hearings up to the time when he himself could no longer do so because of his own AIDS-related illnesses. He died in 1994.

Bruce Voeller is well-known in AIDS research and activist circles but little-known outside. Just as Alan Turing’s life emerged out of the shadows in recent years, Bruce’s life should be equally recognised world-wide for his part in lgbt heritage. 

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