How The AIDS Crisis Made White Men Recognize Their Privilege

China Photos/Getty Images
A powerful post on the Humans of New York Facebook page addresses the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and how it caused one man and his community to recognize their white male privilege as they joined forces with marginalized groups.
"It was a tsunami. In April of '82 there was an article in the New York Times about a new gay cancer, and everyone thought 'oh well.' I was in my twenties. I wasn’t worried about a thing," the subject recalls. "But then every week you started to hear about somebody becoming ill. My boss was one of the first. He was a famous florist. He went into the hospital on Thanksgiving and was dead by Easter. I lost most of my friends."
Advertisement
He goes on to explain that many of the people killed by AIDS were closeted and had been protected by their white male privilege until the crisis hit. Then, everything changed. "A lot of the first men to die were privileged. They were closeted, corporate white men. During the day they were bankers but at night they’d hit the leather clubs and bars. But they learned their privilege didn’t matter after they got sick. They were just 'gay,'" he recalls.
With their privilege gone, the men joined forces with other marginalized groups as they fought for AIDS to be recognized by the government.
"We joined together with people of color, and junkies, and prostitutes. It was a beautiful thing, really. Our feminist lesbian sisters taught us how to protest because they’d been doing it for decades," he recalls. "They showed us how to organize meetings, and bring people together, and force the government to the table—things we’d never had to think about as white men."
As this man points out, for many years he and his friends enjoyed a level of privilege simply because they were cisgender white men. We often don't recognize our own privilege until it's taken away, and the AIDS crisis challenged his community to address social and political issues that they'd previously never had to deal with as white men. When they had to take action in order for their plight to be recognized, they realized that other communities had been battling stigma and discrimination for decades.
Advertisement