In June 1981, the world changed forever with the first AIDS diagnosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, five young men were reported with the illness in Los Angeles, California. Over 40 years later, there are 85.6 million people infected with HIV, while approximately 40.4 million died of it, the World Health Organization reports.

But the history of AIDS goes far beyond infection, deaths, and fighting for a cure. It is colored with a harrowing history of discrimination and stigma toward those most affected by the epidemic: the LGBTQ+ community.

From 1981 to 1982, after the highest number of HIV-related deaths stemmed from gay men, AIDS was colloquially known as “gay cancer.” Among the mystery and the fear behind it, gays were turned away by their families, communities —and, yes— even medicine. In 1983, “men who slept with men” were even prohibited from donating blood.

In the blink of an eye, almost an entire generation disappeared at the hands of the disease.

As time passed, the epidemic saw cases among heterosexuals increase as well. Another group that saw disproportionate care was women. According to Contagion Live, Latinas face higher barriers to HIV care than their male counterparts while simultaneously facing stigma and machismo from their communities.

On World AIDS Day, we’re looking back through the painful history of the illness, how it affected Latinas, and the future of HIV care.

HIV disproportionately affected Latinas in the U.S., accounting for 30 percent of all infection cases

In 2019, reports by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health states Latinas are disproportionately affected by HIV. Back then, Latinas were four times more likely to have AIDS compared to white females.

“The first thing I did was to get on my bicycle and go for a ride with my eyes closed. I hoped a car would hit me,” an 18-year-old Latina told the Los Angeles Times in 1990 after finding out she was HIV-positive. “When I found out, I felt scared, lonely. I couldn’t go to nobody,” said another.

During the height of the epidemic, Latinas accounted for nearly 30 percent of all HIV infections and were three times more likely than non-Latinas to die of HIV. But why were they most affected? And how come the difference is so huge in comparison to other demographics?

The American Journal of Public Health has some leads. In July 2019, they published an article titled “The Invisible US Hispanic/Latino HIV Crisis: Addressing Gaps in the National Response.”

In its research, the authors identified four underlying drivers of HIV for the Latino community and found a need to invest in four key areas. First and foremost, reducing HIV stigma within the community and, second, increasing the availability and resources of HIV treatment for HIV-positive Latinos. Furthermore, developing behavioral interventions for Latinos. And lastly, engaging community leaders.

Returning to the 1990s, however, Latinas faced other barriers to healing. Among them machismo and violence. At a conference in Los Angeles, “Latinas and AIDS: Nuestra Respuesta,” which gathered over 120 healthcare providers, Gloria Romero, assistant professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles, raised an important question.

“How do we as Latinas negotiate safe sex when a safe relationship may not exist?” the Los Angeles Times shares. Many of those barriers remain the same today but can certainly change.

Putting the “L” first in LGBTQAI+ pays homage to the toils of lesbians and women during the AIDS epidemic

Lesbians were among the greatest activists the AIDS epidemic saw in the 1980s and 90s. As the disease infected gay men, many in the lesbian community rose to help in any way they could. When the world turned against them, lesbians swooped in to help.

The San Diego Blood Sisters held blood drives and worked with local blood banks to ensure donations went straight to HIV/AIDS patients, Yale reports. Part of the reason why the L in the LGBTQ acronym comes first is in recognition of how the community came together during the crisis to help each other out.

According to The Foreword, the order of LGBTQ changed, with the “L” coming first to show solidarity between both groups within the community.

“Lesbians were the ones helping gay men with medical care. They were also a massive part of the activism surrounding the gay community and AIDS at the time,” they state.

World AIDS Day and the future of HIV treatment

Since 1988, every year on December 1 World AIDS Day raises awareness and educates people worldwide on the disease. It also aims to remind governments that AIDS continues to be a healthcare priority and driver of global deaths.

According to UNAIDS, this year’s theme called “Let Communities Lead.” The initiative focuses on empowering communities to lead the fight against the disease. “

“This World AIDS Day is more than a celebration of the achievements of communities,” the website reads. “It is a call to action to enable and support communities in their leadership roles.”

As far as HIV/AIDS care, medical advances continue. The NIH shares antiretroviral therapy (ART), nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) and other medications are helping patients live long and healthy lives. Additionally, new medications are helping people prevent the disease.

PrEP or pre-exposure prophylaxis is now available for people who don’t have HIV but are at high risk of contagion. Still, prevention is the best alternative for ending the spread of the infection. As far as Latinas are concerned, speaking openly with service providers, regular testing, and becoming educated on STIs can make a difference.