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Although penicillin had been discovered as a simple cure for syphilis as early as 1947, researchers chose not to inform their research subjects about this so they could observe the long-term effects of syphilis on African-American bodies.The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male resulted in the unnecessary deaths of more than 100 men from syphilis or its complications.Before HIV was identified as the virus causing AIDS—even before the term AIDS was established—the syndrome was being called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), the ‘homosexual cancer’ or the more derogatory ‘gay plague’.Early theories regarding the cause of AIDS pointed to factors such as excessive semen in the bloodstream from anal intercourse or the ‘fast-paced’ lifestyle of many gay men.8 Although it was not long into the 1980s when the first cases of AIDS among heterosexual people began to appear in Australia, the belief that there was an inherent association between AIDS and the lifestyle and sexual choices of gay men seemed to be entrenched in Australian public consciousness.In 1990, a New York Times/WCBS TV news poll found that 10 per cent of African Americans ‘genuinely and definitely’ believed that HIV/AIDS had been ‘deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people’.A further 20 per cent agreed that this could ‘possibly be true’.12 For many African Americans, AIDS was perceived within a context of several centuries of racial discrimination and abuse.It was this that would inform policy and direct the treatment of HIV/AIDS by government and public health authorities.If HIV/AIDS continued to be seen as a disease of immorality, of ‘blameworthy deviants’, then punitive and restrictive measures to control its spread could potentially be considered justifiable.
Gay men in Australia began to organise politically not only to protect people afflicted with AIDS and draw attention to their needs, but to defend the broader social rights of gay men and lesbians.
Introduction Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) entered the public arena as a ‘mystery disease’ for which there was no known cause and no cure.
Concerns that this unknown killer would sweep rapidly across whole populations provided it with media and political attention few medical conditions receive.
Many of these men also infected their wives or partners.
The legacy of the Tuskegee study—the so-called ‘Tuskegee effect’—has been described as a collective memory of experiences that shaped a powerful mistrust of medical authorities among African Americans.11 This mistrust was still apparent in the early 1980s when HIV/AIDS first emerged in America.For groups that have experienced discrimination throughout history there is every reason for fear of continued discrimination to frame many of their actions and decisions.