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In July 1981, Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights, the world's first organisation for LGBT medical professionals, published a newsletter informing its readers of 'a new potentially lethal syndrome … seen among otherwise healthy young gay males in New York and California'. What was later identified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), tore apart minority communities and redefined battles over access to health care in a period usually defined by conservative ascendancy, 'Reaganomics', and the rise of the Christian right.
This lecture examines the interaction between HIV/AIDS and state policymaking in the US between the early 1980s and mid-1990s. Existing accounts of the epidemic privilege the response of the Reagan administration and the direct action advocacy of ACT UP, ignoring how state legislatures became the primary site of AIDS policymaking in the 1980s. Anchored in case studies of California, Illinois, and Texas, my current project rectifies this historiographical oversight by examining the flurry of AIDS-related bills passed by state legislatures in the 1980s. By focusing on these three states and their heterogeneous response to AIDS, I move beyond an historical narrative that centres on San Francisco and New York, and reveal the gradual enmeshment of gay activists into the policymaking process. In doing so, I complicate dominant narratives of the 1980s that emphasize conservative ascendancy, neoliberal restructuring, and the declining power of labour. Instead, I argue that this period witnessed the emergence of a vibrant network of gay policymakers, who vigorously contested Reagan’s inadequate response to AIDS.
A former Cambridge undergraduate, Stephen Colbrook is a PhD candidate at University College London, where he is researching a dissertation on the interaction between HIV/AIDS and state policy-making in the U.S. This work will focus on the political and policy-making side of the epidemic and aims to compare the different contexts of individual states, such as California, Florida, and New Jersey.
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