Since the first diagnosis in the 80s, HIV and AIDS have garnered immense fear, contributing to myths and uncertainties surrounding the virus's impact and transmission. With particular vulnerability to HIV and AIDS, the LGBT+ community has long been plagued with harsh stereotypes and discrimination due to assumptions made about HIV and AIDS.
Although HIV and AIDS cases in the UK have decreased as medical research has advanced, the community continues to feel the brunt of social disparities brought on by ignorance about the virus. This guide aims to outline the history of HIV and AIDS in the UK, debunk popular myths about the issue, and provide information concerning the disease's ongoing impact on the LGBT+ community.
What's the difference between HIV and AIDS?
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, they denote different stages of the virus and its severity on an individual. HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, refers to the virus itself as it attacks the immune system, causing complications.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is used to describe HIV in its later stages, having already caused significant damage to the individual's health. It's possible to have HIV without yet having AIDS. An HIV patient's viral load, or the detectable amount of the virus in their body, dictates how easily the individual can transmit the virus to others.
The lack of research on the virus in its early stages initially meant cases of AIDS were higher than they are today. Still, the overall numbers of HIV and AIDS have gradually begun to decline as technology and treatments have become readily available to hinder the virus from progressing further.
How HIV and AIDS evolved in the UK
Though the disease had been documented in years prior, in 1982, Terrence Higgins, a gay man, suffered the first AIDS-related death in the UK. Approximately five years later, the first antiretroviral drug for HIV was approved for use in the US and subsequently distributed in the UK.
In 1996, new antiretroviral drugs were approved for treatment to prevent the transmission of HIV between partners, paving the way for a manageable approach to controlling the virus. While medical progression was being made, it wasn't enough to combat the social stereotypes circulating on the ground and affecting everyday activities for LGBT+ people, such as finding work or access to education. Social and political policies failed to offer protection to those same people on a grander scale, and hate crimes remained particularly common.
It wasn't until 2010 that the government passed The Equality Act (2010), which included giving rights to people living with HIV, protecting them from discrimination by classifying the disease as a disability.
Since then, the UK government has made strides to slow the virus's spread while also targeting the social discrimination that comes with it. The government have implemented campaigns to lower the country's transmission rates to zero and have made PrEP treatments accessible through the NHS. Prep is a daily or before sex medication used in HIV negative people to stop the transmission of the virus during unprotected sex.
Currently, the government estimates approximately 105,200 HIV-positive people living in the UK, while another 6,600 are estimated to be undiagnosed.
Furthermore, studies show that although infection rates are continually dropping, the percentage of LGBT+ affected by HIV remains disproportionately higher than that of heterosexual people.
Why is the LGBTQ+ community more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS?
When HIV made its way to the UK, very little was known about the virus and who was most susceptible. Before studies were available to measure the virus's effects locally, epidemiologists in the US were already linking the spread of HIV with the growing infection rates in the LGBT+ community.
They identified clusters of gay, HIV-positive men with the virus and eventually coined the name "gay-related immunodeficiency disease," which only increased the stigma more by connecting the virus solely to the gay community. It wasn't until 1983 that HIV was detected in heterosexual female patients, and the name was later changed to AIDS to denote its spreading potential to all individuals.
The cluster infection rates, combined with Terrence Higgins's death and underdeveloped medical research, ultimately influenced the correlation between the virus and its effects on the LGBT+ community, which later opened corridors for prejudices and discrimination.
In the UK today, nearly one in five LGBT+ people have experienced hate crimes solely based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. This includes discrimination by family and friends, in the workplace, in public, or even when renting a property. Due to the consequences of bias and discrimination affecting quality of life, LGBT+ people are likely to engage in activities that enable the spread of HIV. For example, Trans women, due to employment and housing discrimination, can take on sex work in order to meet basic needs.
Some studies have also analysed the physical vulnerabilities associated with HIV spread and the gay male community, suggesting that men who have sex with men are at greater risk of contracting the virus because they are more likely to engage in anal sex.
Debunking myths surrounding HIV and AIDS in the LGBTQ+ Community
Medical research has tackled the effects of HIV, preventing the virus from progressing into AIDS. Nevertheless, myths and stereotypes continue to persist and create criticism of the LGBT+ community because of its higher infection rates.
Let's take a look at some of the widespread HIV and AIDS myths regarding the LGBT+ community.
Myth: "HIV is an LGBT+ disease"
Fact: Almost anyone who has unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner can contract the virus, regardless of their sexual preferences.
It can occur during vaginal penetration or anal penetration. It can also be spread by sharing used needles, sex toys, or coming into contact with contaminated blood, semen, and vaginal fluids.
HIV can also be spread via mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy.
It is also crucial to remember that HIV is not easily detectable from appearances alone, nor does it show always show apparent symptoms. Due to this, it is even more important for safe sex and regular testing to be practised.
Myth: "Contracting HIV is equivalent to a death sentence"
Fact: While there is no cure for HIV, science has made it possible to manage and control the disease without allowing it to spread into AIDS.
Treatments are readily available, including a daily tablet, allowing those living with HIV to have a quality of life as good as those who are HIV negative.
People with HIV who take medication consistently cannot pass the virus on to others, as their viral load becomes undetectable; this is often referred to as Undetectable = Untransmissable.
Myth: "HIV can be passed on by interacting with someone who is LGBT+"
Fact: HIV cannot be spread by simply working, socialising, or spending time with someone who is LGBT+.
However, such myths can perpetuate harmful assumptions about the community, placing them at the forefront of unwarranted discrimination.
Although cases of HIV are significantly higher in the LGBT+ community, the virus is not confined to same-sex relationships and does not only affect LGBT+ people.
While HIV treatments have become available over the years and laws have been passed to tackle these discriminations, the fact remains that there is still a lot of work to be done to eliminate the continued vulnerability that the LGBT+ community experiences in relation to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated LGBTQ+ Rights & Issues section.