How did privacy serve as both a benefit and a detriment in the early years of the AIDS crisis?
Arguably, HIV/AIDS did not become part of the national conversation in the United States until 1985. The nation began to take notice, particularly when children became infected with the virus via blood transfusions. This was the story of Ryan White, a boy who used his status to become an activist and advocate for awareness, after being denied entry to his school for fear of posing a public health threat.
Prior to this, HIV and AIDS were deemed "gay diseases." In fact, for a time, the acronym GRIDS (gay-related immuno-deficiency syndrome) was applied to the illness. Gay men, and their presumably sexually deviant and promiscuous behavior, were blamed for the illness and its spread.
Because people with HIV and AIDS were stigmatized, there was a tendency among those infected to keep their health status a secret. Privacy protected people from losing their jobs, losing friends, and even from becoming estranged from family members who feared the disease and its presumed associations. On the other hand, this withholding of information had a detrimental effect. If infected people passed on the virus to others and failed to notify them, those individuals would have unknowingly passed it on to other partners.
Moreover, remaining silent about HIV only helped to further stigmatize the virus and those carrying it. This stigmatization allowed both the Reagan and Bush administrations to ignore those who were infected by the disease, and to deny and delay funding for research and access to medication.
Finally, silence also made it difficult to properly educate people about prevention. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, myths were perpetuated regarding the viruses. Firstly, HIV was, and still is, frequently conflated with AIDS, though they are not the same. Secondly, people believed that the virus could be contracted through kissing, touching, or sharing a drink from the same glass. Thirdly, many heterosexual men continued to believe that it was "a gay disease" and that they could not contract the illness from women, which is also patently false.
In sum, privacy and silence around the illness may have protected people from ostracism in the short-term, but in the long-term, privacy and silence denied Americans proper treatment for and education about HIV/AIDS.