On This Day: AIDS enters mainstream

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35 Years After the AIDS Epidemic Began, It’s Devastating the South

Black Americans in the South are contracting HIV at alarming rates. As one expert put it, “We have a raging fire on our hands.”

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History has christened the beginning of AIDS as June 5, 1981 when an issue of the government publication MMWR highlighted five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia in healthy men in Los Angeles. But there were really seven cases of this infection that doctors were rarely seeing, and the sixth and seventh cases were Black men, one of them gay, the other Haitian, according to the author of the report. Those cases were “disappeared” because they didn’t fit into the rest of the profile of healthy white men.


+Commentary:  This is a story we could run every few years, but on this, the day that the NYT in 1981 ran the headline: Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” that ushered into the public consciousness the AIDS epidemic, called GRiD at first. The above article highlights the way the “history” was altered to focus on healthy white (gay) men. A legacy that still to this day is reflecting in it being “cured” or “manageable” to the extent that it doesn’t kill white gay men.

NYT Headline July 3rd 1981 AIDS epidemicWhile the rest, will just have to suffer in silence. Which we all know equals death. The last big push was to get affordable medicines to Africa, which at the time I decried would belie the fact that we had to literally step over the dying bodies of our own, here in this country, to provide assistance to Africa. While that is a noble cause, and is not said begrudgingly, it is a way of othering the situation to not see the person closest to you suffering in shame and sorrow, to help the ones dying half a world away. That we as a country could invoke the worst of the “White Savior Complex” and think that if we only provided funds and leadership, which I won’t disparage, then we could save all those poor under-evolved suffering folks. That it came with colonial & religious caveats is to be expected. silence-equals-death neon_9124_large

Several years ago, DC ran an urban awareness campaign touting that in their communities of color the rates were higher than in sub-Saharan Africa. Since then other urban metropolises have used this rather regrettable language as outreach, education, and calls-to-action. This sort of messaging is sensationalist at best, and problematic at worst. It certainly hasn’t cut the number of new infections, or slowed the pace. That now having acquired Marriage Equality, apparently #LoveWins and all else is just a footnote.

As a community, society, concerned humans we need to do better. Not just for a white affluent population that is dwindling as the 0.01% siphon off the profits, but doing right by the marginalized communities. That we can’t provide prophylactic protections in prison, that the rape culture that is so prevalent there it goes unchecked, is often laughed about as proper vengeance is revolting. Again our silence equals death, for many we are too busy to notice or care about their plight. Or worse think they deserve it, which is exactly how we are treating those most affected by this continuing crisis.

image by dtack68 @ deviant art

image by dtack68 @ deviant art

We don’t need to save them, we need to create outreach and education campaigns, not branded credit cards to accessorize our seemingly compassionate and consumerist natures, we need to crack open the shame and cognitive dissonance we live within, and free these marginalized voices. They will look like Black/Brown/Native folks sharing with you how the rubric of systemic oppression keeps them locked in a death spiral with a disease many think is eradicated or manageable, or happens in that dreaded “third world.”

Writing the piece about (Red) a decade ago, it occurred to me that it would probably be necessary to write this same screed every few years, that there is no sign at all that things are going to get better. That the interlocking systems of oppression that are combined to keep marginalized HIV/AIDS communities down are showing no sign of abating. That failing any further actions or combined, sustained focus on it, is to doom generations to living with or dying of a treatable illness.

Can we live with that? Should we live with that? I think not. So today help our Trans, Bi, Black & PoC youth to realize that the specter of AIDS needn’t be a “given,” nor is wide-acceptance of PreP a cure-all for this situation. We need to really discuss this, mobilize, and bring the rest of us up the standards the rest seem to enjoy out of privilege. That means taking direct action, including a plan to address all the barriers to it, prison, church, and everywhere else. Healthcare is a feminist issue, trust. For who do you think has to take care of those afflicted? Yes, let’s all do better, and keep this epidemic at the forefront of our causes.

Until we are all free, none of us are.


Further Reading:

America’s HIV epidemic is concentrated and most deadly in the southern states, but two policies could have a profound effect on the illness.

2013:  The Deep South Is the Latest Epicenter of the HIV Epidemic | The Nation


* will return and update this list as more historic links become available. Wanting to publish this before filling in the footnotes, please forgive.

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