Beauty in Dark Places: Acknowledging the Problem


HIV or human immunodeficiency virus attacks the body’s immune system, especially T cells, which help to fight off infections. Over time the virus can kill so many T cells that the body is unable to fight off infections and diseases. When the immune system is that weak, it is vulnerable to opportunistic infections and cancers. At this point the individual has AIDS. So, what is AIDS really? Simply put AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome is the most severe phase of HIV.

Image: New York Historical Society

Unlike many viruses, HIV and AIDS cannot be cured but can be controlled with ART (antiretroviral therapy). By using this medicine daily, individuals with HIV/AIDS can live longer, healthier and lower their chances of infecting others. However, this was not the case when the AIDS epidemic began. In fact, it is believed that more than 35 million people have died since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. There were many challenges our society had to face when dealing with AIDS, one of the biggest being figuring out what AIDS was. Individuals today may feel that the AIDS epidemic is a dark moment far in the past, but it was not very long ago and is still a problem today.

On June 5th,1981 a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in five young gay men in Los Angeles.( Along with the rare lung disease the men had other infections, giving reason to believe something was wrong with their immune systems. By the time this report was released two of the five men were dead. It was not apparent at the time, but this was the first official report of many as the AIDS epidemic began.

Following this report, the CDC received countless reports of similar cases from doctors around the country. Not only did they report cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, but other infections among gay men, and even a case of cancer plaguing a group of gay men in New York and California. So, on June 8th the CDC created KSOI (Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections) to investigate the infections and to identify possible risk factors. “By year-end, there is a cumulative total of 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men, and 121 of those individuals have died.’ (

On September 24th, 1982, the CDC finally named the disease, acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS for short. By 1988, there had been at least one case of HIV/AIDS reported from every region of the world. The AIDS epidemic was growing at an alarming rate, killing thousands of individuals and introducing scientist and doctors to additional information on how the disease spread, who was prone to get infected and how the disease works. By the end of the decade there was over 100,000 reported cases of  AIDS in the U.S.(

Spreading just as fast as the virus, was the stigmatisms and prejudices against the disease and those infected with it. This disease was infecting the communities fighting for acceptance making it was easy for the government to ignore the epidemic. Since the first cases of individuals infected with HIV/AIDS were homosexual the disease quickly became known as “gay cancer” or the “gay plague.” “HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on certain populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities and gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men.” (

Click here for audio of Larry Speakes talking about the AIDS epidemic.
This is a audio recording in which you can clearly hear former president Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes laughing and making jokes, claiming to have never heard of AIDS. This audio is perfect for summing up the governments response to this deadly virus.

Just like inequality and discrimination were the fuel for art during the Harlem renaissance, the inequality and lack of attention towards the epidemic lead motivated individuals into creating protests, art, campaigns and foundations to raise awareness and funding for AIDS.