President Reagan announced that he would be appointing an “AIDS czar” in 1985. That person turned out to be Dr. C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general. Dr. Koop spent the next year researching HIV/AIDS and consulting with experts until October 1986, when he published the Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
This report was extensive and, most importantly, medically accurate. First and foremost Koop stressed that “HIV or HTLV-III or LAV” (clearly they had not settled on a name yet) is not transmitted through casual contact and even provided the scientific studies that proved so. He works through the entire scientific process of transmission in simple, concise language. He then goes on to distinguish between what is a risky behavior and what is not, relegating things like “saliva,” “pets,” and “donating blood” as undoubtedly not a risk factor. Finally, he describes some of the possible solutions for the future, outright rejecting notions of “quarantine” and instead advocating for greater education to all children, adolescents, and adults.
Dr. Koop’s report was remarkable in many ways. Firstly, he addressed the concerns of the public in clearly and succinctly. This kind of systematic, no-nonsense way of addressing the fears and stigmas attached to the disease was sorely needed. Secondly, he used language that focused on action rather than identity, replacing words like “homosexual” with “man who has sex with men.” This struggle with words of sexual identity represented a great problem for the medical community as they tried to curb the rise of AIDS through identity-based advice rather than action-based policy. Finally, Koop’s complete promotion of AIDS education, even citing sex education for children, was rather revolutionary for the conservative government. This particular issue provoked a lot of push-back from Reagan’s administration, and many officials stated that such education would “teach children to be promiscuous” or some such nonsense.
The document was hailed by AIDS activists as being an example of productive discussion on AIDS and its future policies. It was also deemed as being far too radical by many above Koop. The Surgeon’s General Report helped shift the public perception of AIDS. Most tellingly, however, was that the government never took up Dr. Koop’s suggestions. Many of these suggestions would get implemented through ACT UP’s militant action.