AIDS in the '80s: The rise of a new civil rights movement

Story highlights

  • HIV killed more than 14,000 people by the end of the 1980s
  • The public panicked, not knowing how it spread
  • The LGBT community often had to fill in gaps in care as so many gay men died and others were isolated

(CNN)In the 1980s, when Dr. Jesse Peel was in his 40s, he realized something startling: The gay community organizer and psychiatrist in Atlanta had lost more of his contemporaries than his aging mother at the time.

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic. Peel said he would sometimes attend two or three funerals for friends in a week. People were getting sick, deathly sick, long before the disease even had a name.
His journals from the time capture this loss and hint at fear people had of the disease and of his community. Not knowing how it spread, people in the 1980s worried that they'd get sick from holding hands or catch the disease from a public toilet seat. There were no tests and no real treatments. The disease struck so many young men so quickly, and it seemed to target the gay community, so much that its first name was gay-related immune deficiency. Some just called it "gay cancer."
    Peel's journal also documents his growing desire to be an activist. In the 1980s, people were so afraid of the disease, nurses refused to take in meals to hospitalized patients. Doctors in major medical journals debated whether they had a moral obligation to treat people with AIDS. Parents refused to see their sick children, and faith communities called patients with HIV an "abomination." Peel and others like him helped start organizations that would fill in the gaps of care.
    Peel donated his journals to a special collection at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta. The collection of personal papers and mementos from the AIDS movement, part of a broader LGBT collection, gives readers an intimate glimpse of the epidemic as it unfolded and as the LGBT movement gained momentum.
    San Francisco and New York will always be inextricably linked to the early AIDS movement, but people in Atlanta also played a unique role, one that's often overlooked. The city is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, in 1981, first documented what was then a mysterious disease. Some members of the Reagan administration famously refused to even mention the word AIDS until 1985, and by then, the epidemic was too big to ignore, with 15,948 cases. It was the CDC that created a hotline to answer scared people's questions. The agency tracked case numbers and developed research to better understand the virus.
    In 1989, Atlanta-based Nexus Press hosted what is believed to be the first art exhibition in the United States to focus solely on AIDS. It was an Atlanta theater that, in 1984, staged what is thought to be the first AIDS-themed play, "Warren." Rebecca Ranson's original manuscript, which is housed at the Emory archive, tells a story about her friend who was dying from the disease and how she, a lesbian, and other friends tried to help. The play was performed throughout the country and at the CDC's first International conference about AIDS held in Atlanta in 1985. It aimed to educate a broader public that might have had little firsthand experience with the epidemic. The program lists AIDS organizations and their phone numbers on the back.
    And it was an Atlantan who was at the heart of the gay rights case Bowers v. Hardwick. An officer arrested Michael Hardwick for sodomy after the officer observed Hardwick having sex with another man in his own bedroom. The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared Georgia laws that prohibited sodomy constitutional. In 2003, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. Hardwick died in 1991 due to complications from AIDS.
    Anger over the case inspired some in the local community to get more involved in organizing public protests such as the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The march was attended by more than 200,000 and was the largest of its kind at the time. The program from the march, also housed at the archive, calls for a national response to increase funding for AIDS research and asks for an end to discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS. Some of the local organizers pictured in the program would later become a part of the city's political establishment.
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    Peel said AIDS in the 1980s changed Atlanta. The city was always a magnet for LGBT individuals who left their smaller towns for the more liberated city, but before the epidemic, "for many guys, it was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll," it wasn't about being a part of a broader civil rights movement, Peel told an interviewer. The disease and the public's reaction to it changed that.
    "We didn't have a gay center then or much in the way of gay organizations. We had to make them up as we went along, and people came together to take care of their friends who were sick and dying," he said. "As the epidemic unfolded, it began to bring people together."