By the end of 1984, AIDS had already ravaged the United States for a few years, affecting at least 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500. Scientists had identified the cause of AIDS—HIV—and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified all of its major transmission routes.
Yet, U.S. leaders had remained largely silent and unresponsive to the health emergency. And it wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS.
But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic.
HIV originated in 1920 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. It spread to Haiti and the Caribbean before jumping to New York City around 1970 and California within the decade.
Health officials first became aware of AIDS in the summer of 1981. Young and otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles and New York began getting sick and dying of unusual illnesses normally associated with people with weakened immune systems.
It didn’t take long for fear of the “gay plague” to spread quickly among the gay community. Beyond the mortal danger from the disease, they also dealt with potentially being “outed” as homosexual if they had AIDS or an illness resembling it.
In fall 1982, the CDC described the disease as AIDS for the first time. Despite the growing cases and a new name, news outlets struggled with the disease, or at least how to cover it—some even shied away from giving it too much attention. Though the New York Times initially reported on the mysterious illnesses in July 1981, it would take almost two years before the prestigious paper gave AIDS front-page space on May 25, 1983. By that time, almost 600 people had died from it.
David W. Dunlap, a reporter in the Metro section at the time, told the New York Times Style Magazine: “There were strong messages that you got that were not written on any whiteboard. You knew to avoid it. It was a self-reinforcing edict: Don’t write about queers.”