🏳️‍🌈 Naming a Plague

Before AIDS was called AIDS, it had another name. Actually, a few.

In 1981, doctors noticed an unexpected and alarming increase in pneumonia deaths among gay men. The cause was a sexually transmitted disease that attacked the immune system.

Researchers named the disease Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. It was sometimes called Gay Lymph Node Syndrome, Gay Compromise Syndrome, and Community-Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

Some simply called it Gay Cancer.

By late 1982, it was becoming clear that gay men weren’t the only victims. Some people who had received blood transfusions or shared intravenous needles were also succumbing to the same disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began calling it Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

I grew up as the plague took hold, insulated from it but not ignorant about it. The word AIDS (or SIDA when I lived in Spain) was inescapable when I was in my teens, and I knew that it wasn’t simply a medical term. Those four capital letters could be more powerful and devastating than a nuclear bomb (another inescaple term from my teens) becuase led to pain, ridicule, shame, guilt, ostraciziation, hate, and death.1

I learned later that, for some, the word did more than strike fear and invite despair. The acronym of my nightmares ignited compassion, spurred action, transfomed people into activists and allies, and gave us the strength, vision, and moral impertive to push for acceptance, diginity, and equal rights.

The word AIDS connotes despair and darkness — rightfully so — but let’s never forget it also refers to love and hope. After all, what’s in a name? Whatever we want.

1 An interesting but utterly inconsequential footnote: The Complimentary Spouse used to belong to an academic association called the American Institute for Decision Sciences. That meant he contributed to AIDS journals and participated in AIDS conferences. In 1986, for obvious reasons, it changed its name to the Decision Sciences Institute.