Stigma did not create AIDS. Yet it prepared the way and speeded its ravaging course through America and the world. First stigma delayed understanding of the disease: it’s a gay cancer, it’s a punishment from God, they brought it on themselves, so who cares? Then stigma delayed government action, research, and assistance for the sick and dying. Stigma made people afraid to get tested for HIV and treated. Stigma made people ashamed, isolating and alienating them from friends and family. Stigma cost people jobs, professional standing, housing, a seat on an airplane or in a dentist’s chair. Stigma made many afraid to live, and want to die. But then it began to make some brave people very angry and AIDS activism was born. The activists quickly realized that to end AIDS we must end stigma.
AIDS activism did more to fight the stigma on being gay or having AIDS than any other social force. In this way, AIDS activism, like the civil rights movement, became a great moral movement of our time, defending the innocent, restoring dignity to the violated, giving hope to the desperate, and reviving faith in the disillusioned. AIDS activism gave LGBT people courage, dignity, and power they had never held before. It inspired many to stand up and proudly proclaim who they are and who they love. Twenty-six of the world’s most advanced countries now recognize gay marriage and today a gay man openly married to another man is a prominent candidate for President of the United States.