Dave Widgery

AIDS and the New Puritanism

(July 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 89, July–August 1986, p. 11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

AIDS and the New Puritanism
Dennis Altman
Pluto Press, £4.95.

AIDS is no more a gay disease than German measles is German. It has probably existed, undiagnosed, in Haiti and north-west Africa for decades. In late 1979 two Los Angeles physicians noted previously fit, young gay men succumbing to illnesses which the body’s normally functioning immune system would throw off in a matter of weeks.

Up to 1986 16,138 Americans had contracted AIDS – of whom 8,220 had died.

The rapid rate of spread, combined with the AIDS-aided mixture of fear and hatred of homosexuality which has been disseminated even faster, has created an epidemic which is without medical precedent in the post-war years.

Pre-scientific explanations have abounded: AIDS is god’s punishment, gays have ‘brought it on themselves’.

The first thing to understand is that AIDS is, by the standards of most infectious diseases, very hard to catch. But it is unusually persistent. As far as we know, an AIDS-carrier is infectious for life, which makes psychological and social support networks of particular importance.

Secondly, medical progress in understanding the disease has been extraordinarily good. It took less than three years for virologists, after recognising the syndrome, to find the responsible virus, and one more year to invent a test.

In Britain there are about 300 known AIDS cases, mostly in London. On the whole the NHS has responded well. The venereal disease clinics of the NHS are probably unique in offering open-access, free investigation and prescription and extensive contact tracing. This has meant the immediate availability of skilled specialist opinion.

But the introduction of AIDS-contaminated clotting factors to haemophiliacs could have been entirely avoided if the blood transfusion service had been protected, by adequate funding, from ‘buying out’ supplies taken from at-risk donors rather than UK volunteers.

Sexually transmitted diseases have until very recently caused a terrible toll of fatal illness, which in the case of syphilis was chronically associated with extreme suffering. Sex, for women especially, has never been particularly ‘safe’.

As for the mood in the gay community, the AIDS-obsession, as documented by Altman in North America, seems to have had a conservatising political effect.

One thing is certain though: far from being caused by the gay liberation movement, the AIDS outbreak would have taken far longer to detect and deal with if homosexual men were still forced to live lives of deception, dishonesty and shame.


Last updated on 27 October 2019