Sin, Death, and Disease: The Cultural Meaning of AIDS
“When I’m gone, please accept that there is no blame. No blame. Just as a virus holds no morals.” -David Matias, from “The Gay Gene”
Diseases mean things. It is human nature to analyze, to interpret, and to understand our world through metaphor. But the metaphors we choose to understand the world are not value-free, and they have real-world consequences. This is especially true of illness, which agitates our basest human fears of pain and death, and, consequently, evokes some of our strongest metaphors. These metaphors have power—they can lead people to blame the ill for becoming infected and perpetuate stereotypes about vulnerable groups, leaving the victims of the disease ostracized and alone. The idea that a disease is incurable or the result of vice prevent those who have fallen ill from seeking treatment out of shame, fear, or hopelessness. These metaphors can kill.
AIDS as sin
“I will never accept this … I will pray all my life that you change.” -a quote from David Matias’s father (who would later accept him).
AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease. This, in itself, would be enough for the disease to become associated with sexual perversity. However, in the early 1980s, AIDS seemed to primarily afflict gay men. This demographic fluke, along with rampant homophobia in the United States, meant that many viewed AIDS as punishment for the “sin” of homosexuality.
AIDS as death
“The myth back then was that you died immediately when you were diagnosed.” -David Matias, on why many gay men refused testing for AIDS.
When AIDS was first discovered, it was a confusing, terrifying illness. The common knowledge was that once one acquired “full-blown AIDS,” one was bound to die. Of course, this was a myth—later research found AIDS to be both treatable and survivable. The initial myth of AIDS as a death sentence, however, meant that many gay men refused to get tested or treated, since they believed such things were pointless.
Connections with Other Diseases
AIDS is not the first disease to take on metaphorical meanings. The association between disease and sin is a common one, as such metaphors existed for diseases like typhoid, syphilis, and even the Black Plague. The belief that AIDS was a death sentence harkened back to attitudes towards cancer just ten years prior, when cancer too was believed to be unsurvivable. Matias himself draws comparisons between AIDS and smallpox, another disease whose victims were shamed and ostracized.