On Monday, far-right media personality Dennis Prager went on Newsmax to defend people who refuse to take the COVID-19 vaccine. He first claimed that COVID antivaxxers are suffering discrimination (they are not), then claimed that gay men were not discriminated against during the height of the AIDS crisis (they definitely were).
Prager said this: “During the AIDS crisis, can you imagine if gay men and intravenous drug users, or the vast majority of people with AIDS, had they been pariahs the way the non-vaccinated are? But it would’ve been inconceivable.”
Watch for yourself:
To start, HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is not transmissible through the air or through casual physical contact; it is spread only via the sharing of blood or other bodily fluids. And unlike people who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine, people infected with HIV are not an infection risk to other people simply by breathing the same air. Get the facts here.
Second, people refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine are not subject to violence, ridicule, bigotry, hate or otherwise driven out of society. They’re simply being encouraged to get vaccinated against the highly contagious disease.
As for gay men and intravenous drug users and the other “vast majority” of people who battled AIDS *not* being turned into pariahs, there are of course plenty of examples to the contrary. For now, we’ll focus on the way gay men were treated.
For instance, Rush Limbaugh had a recurring gag on his radio show in the ’80s in which he mocked people dying of AIDS, which was filled with unambiguously homophobic overtones. According to the Los Angeles Times, Limbaugh even once said, “Gays deserved their fate.”
Conservative activist and commentator William F. Buckley once proposed forcibly tattooing all AIDS patients. And by 1986, it was clear there had been a sharp rise in violence committed against gay men as the AIDS crisis worsened.
Prejudice and hostility against gay men was actually so intense that it was applied to anyone with AIDS regardless. Take, for instance, Ryan White, a 14-year-old from Indiana who was infected due to a blood transfusion and diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. He was forced to sue for the right to attend school, endured ostracism and death threats and his family had to move several times before they found a community that would accept them. He also endured frequent homophobic insults. (He was not himself gay.)
When his case became high profile, he was used as an example of “innocent” AIDS victims, aka people who didn’t “deserve” it because they didn’t contract it through actions society disapproved of. It was so common that White’s mother, Jeane Hale, spoke out against it two years after his death.
“Ryan always said, ‘I’m just like everyone else with AIDS, no matter how I got it.’ And he would never have lived as long as he did without the gay community. The people we knew in New York made sure we knew about the latest treatments way before we would have known in Indiana,” she told the New York Times.
Here are some other examples of how gay man and AIDS sufferers were treated in the ’80s:
As a testament to how different HIV is from coronaviruses like COVID-19, approximately 700,000 Americans have died from AIDS since the disease was first identified in 1981 — a horrific tragedy that was only curbed by LGBTQ organizations who were literally fighting for their lives in the face of massive indifference, the switch to more frank and detailed sex education in schools and the development of life-saving treatments.
But 755,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US just since 2020.