Lambda Lore

HIV/AIDS in the 80s

Before 1985, the HIV/AIDS Hotline’s 800-number, with minimal hours of operation, was the only resource in Utah for HIV/AIDS information.

In February, the Deseret News had reported that four out of the 10 AIDS patients had died since 1983. Among them was 45-year-old Laird S. Larsen, who died in January at Holy Cross Hospital, a month after being diagnosed with AIDS. He had been chairman of the Memory Grove Restoration Project.

The article stated that three of the 10 cases diagnosed in the state included nonresidents and that two of those “victims” had died. A fifth death went unreported because its diagnosis didn’t make it into the Epidemiology Bureau’s December Communicable Disease Newsletter. A diagnosis of Utah’s first female victim of AIDS occurred in December 1984 — and the first person in Utah noted as contracting the disease from a blood transfusion. At the time of her death, she was the eighth case of AIDS reported in Utah. All the deaths from AIDS at that time were from a specific type of pneumonia.

Epidemiologist, Craig R. Nichols, reported that since the state started records in 1983, five of 11 “victims” had died from the disease. All were between the ages of 24 and 42, nine were male, and the majority homosexual or bisexual. The CDC in 1983 required all states to track residents who had AIDS and died from its symptoms. Excluded in state statistics were people who died before 1983.

Thirty-year-old Wyatt Bishop, who died in February in North Carolina, probably was not included in Utah’s health departments AIDS record as he was considered a nonresident and died out of state. Bishop, however, was a former employee of the Sun Tavern and died of pneumonia. Laird and Bishop’s deaths are known only because in March 1985 the local gay newspaper, The Best Source, printed the first obituaries of Utah’s gay men who died of AIDS.

The encroachment of AIDS into the everyday life of the gay community was such a concern in 1985 that, when the 2nd annual Gay and Lesbian Conference at the University of Utah occurred in March, a panel on sexually transmitted diseases, as well as AIDS, was one of the most well-attended seminars. The Lesbian and Gay Student Union and Gay Community Inc., a gay activist organization created by former LGSU members, sponsored the “Safe Sex” workshop. The campus seminar was the first in Utah to hold a forum which was open to the general public.

No governmental health agency offered similar types of discussion to educate or allay fears of Utahns about the health crisis. The keen interest in the workshop indicated concern about the increase in AIDS cases in Utah and nationally.

An infectious disease specialist who practiced out of Holy Cross Hospital, Dr. Kristin Ries, participated on a panel that spoke on preventing the spread of syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis, herpes, and AIDS. Dr. Ries broached a taboo subject in Utah when she stressed the use of prophylactics not for birth control but rather to block the exchange of diseases from person to person engaging in sex. By 1985, Ries had been diagnosing and treating most, if not all, of the gay men who had contracted AIDS.

The subject of condoms as protection against sexually transmitted diseases was problematic in a state that prohibited nonmarital sexual intercourse. Condoms were located behind pharmaceutical counters and not readily available. In November 1985, the first condom advertisement appeared in Utah which ran in the Best Source. The ad promoted “Trojan Natural Lube Ribbed Rolled Latex Condom — Don’t Leave Home Without One”.

Others medical experts participating in the safe-sex seminar recommended that sexually active people should have physical examinations regularly and tested for sexually-transmitted diseases every three months regardless of whether they have any symptoms. However, the testing for antibodies from the recently available test was controversial in the gay community. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay test, also called ELISA or EIA, detected and measured antibodies in the blood. The test was used to determine if antibodies in the blood were related to specific infectious conditions such as the presence of antibodies to the human T-lymphotropic virus type III, or HTLV3, the former name for Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Early tests using the ELISA method looked for antibodies which are the response of the immune system to HIV. However, it carried a lengthy “window” of a person infected who could spread the disease and also test negative. It was due to the window period from the time of infection to when antibodies appeared.

At the March workshop, a public discussion focused on the new ELISA test at national blood banks. Dr. Ries was concerned about the accuracy of the analysis, explaining a positive result might not signify the presence of AIDS. She stated that in some cases people notified of an HIV+ result also made the mistake of quitting their jobs, preparing for death only to have their illness diagnosed as non-AIDS-related. She stated that because of the cost of ELISA, Utah rarely used it. That was to change by mid-year.

A discussion of the ramifications of ELISA took place at another LGSU Conference workshop on “Gay and Lesbian Political Awareness”. David Nelson, editor and co-publisher of The Community Reporter, said, “Not taking the AIDS test is a positive political statement. He felt, as did others, that such tests for AIDS may discriminate against the gay community. Many of the workshop participants felt it was virtually impossible to ensure identity protection. The fear of an “outing” appeared greater than knowing one’s HIV status.

That, and the fact there were no treatments of any kind in 1985, made many feel that knowing one’s positive status could hasten the onset of diseases. It was the feeling that everyone must consider themselves infected and use the protection available at the time to stop spreading the virus.

Following the LGSU conference, on April 1, the Intermountain Red Cross announced available screening for AIDS antibodies using ELISA. The Red Cross later stated, to calm the public, no indication of “tainted blood.” The concept of “tainted blood” sent chills through the gay community as a way to stigmatize gay men.

PHOTO | Dr. Kristen Ries with patient David Sharpton in the 1980s

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  1. Thank you for reporting on this story. HIV/AIDS and homosexuality was so stigmatized back then that I can only imagine the pain and suffering many gay men endured throughout Utah. It’s so bizarre to think that, at one point in time, condoms were difficult to obtain. RIP to all the lives lost this awful disease.

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