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The Whitewashed History of HIV: A Black Teen Died of AIDS in 1969

HIV Whitewashed

The story of Robert Rayford symbolizes how the story of HIV has been told through a white lens — for nearly 50 years.

“Fifty years ago, a frightened 15-year-old black youth checked into St. Louis’s City Hospital with unusual symptoms that puzzled doctors. His legs were swollen, and soon so was his entire body. Nothing seemed to work, not even seven weeks of antibiotics. Doctors suspected he may have acquired chlamydia from a same-sex partner, but the youth never said he had. For six months he continued to deteriorate until May of 1969 this sweet, shy teen lost his life to the disease that baffled medical personnel. His name was Robert Rayford, and he is the first known person to die of HIV in the United States. He died just one month before the Stonewall riots of June 1969, led by queer people of color, and which we honor each year with our annual June Pride celebrations.

At the time, no one knew what HIV was. It would be another 12 years before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported mysterious pneumonia and immune deficiency that had afflicted “5 young men, all active homosexuals.” Deaths started mounting in 1981, but HIV would not be identified by scientists until 1984, and it wouldn’t be until 1987 that HIV would be found in Rayford’s tissue samples. When it finally was, few noticed his story.”

 

From the Advocate

BY REA CAREY AND JESSE MILAN, JR.

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