Flipping through LGBTQ magazines from the 1980s and 1990s, you can map the trajectory of the AIDS crisis in the United States by looking at the advertisements. Early in the 1980s, as HIV swept through gay enclaves of metropolitan cities, publications like The Advocate collected advertising revenue from gay bars and bathhouses—institutions that New York City tried to shutter in response to the crisis. By the mid-’90s, pharmaceutical companies had taken over the ad pages of magazines like Out and POZ to promote protease inhibitors, a lifesaving class of HIV drugs.
Yet in the midst of the epidemic, a third, oft-forgotten sponsor kept these magazines afloat: the viatical-settlement industry. In a viatical settlement, the holder of a life-insurance policy names a third, unrelated party as the benefactor, in exchange for immediate cash. Brokers for viatical settlements advertised almost exclusively to people living with AIDS, and the industry quickly received a ghoulish reputation: Investing in a viatical settlement was a bet on another’s demise. An imminent death yielded a quicker return.
Brokerage firms now dub these agreements “life settlements,” catering to senior citizens, the terminally ill, and those unable to maintain their policies. But viatical settlements first emerged in direct response to the AIDS crisis. “All my first clients were HIV-positive,” says M. Bryan Freeman, who brokered one of the first settlements for a person living with HIV. “So many wanted to sell their policies and it was easy to advertise into the HIV community.”