Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What We've Forgotten About AIDS

As the world focuses attention this week on the 25th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses, there will undoubtedly be a lot made of the fact that, as Nicholas Kristof writes in today's New York Times, "In the early years of AIDS, the virus didn't get attention because the victims were marginalized people: gays, Haitians and hemophiliacs. Then when AIDS did threaten mainstream America, it finally evoked empathy and research dollars."

This typical account of the early years of AIDS is true only to a point. Kristof makes it sound as though the "early populations" (leaving out IV drug users) affected by AIDS were not only distinct from "mainstream America" but that they were tragically overlooked because of their status as "marginalized people." This common reading denies the fact that it was well known early on among scientists and experts that AIDS was already in Africa and was clearly being spread by heterosexual contact in addition to homosexual. Furthermore, it denies the unique way in which AIDS was socially constructed as a gay disease, not just because of a general misunderstanding but because of deliberate efforts by right-wingers to use the disease in a fashion that Simon Watney compared to that of the public spectacle in his essay "The Spectacle of AIDS" to revive Victorian-era conceptions of homosexuals as sick by their very nature.

When we talk about the culture wars in America, the common image is angry people screaming at each other about their beliefs. We rarely think of those wars as having serious casualties. Yet the efforts of leading right-wing culture war figures like Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Fred Phelps and Jesse Helms to frame AIDS as "nature's revenge against homosexuality" - a perverse illness to match a perverse lifestyle - led to the deaths of many thousands of Americans of AIDS. These people had no reservations about what the government should do to people with AIDS - for since they were all gay to them, their response was basically, "Let the fuckers suffer, die, and burn in hell."

Their actions - helped along by an almost totally silent President Reagan and by other supposedly reasonable and remarkable right-wing luminaries - such as William F. Buckley, who in a 1986 op-ed in the New York Times called for HIV+ gay men to be forcibly branded on the buttocks and talked of a possible need for concentration camps - exposed the right wing's culture war for exactly what it is: an effort to render dead or silent all those whose actions, identities, values and politics do not conform to traditional hierarchies of power.

AIDS very deliberately became a gay disease, and it cost the gay community dearly not only in terms of lives but also in terms of political and cultural power. To understand how deeply negatively associated AIDS was with homosexuality, how deeply and widely it was framed and understood as a "diagnostic sign" of homosexuality, is not easy today, particularly for those of my generation, who (speaking for myself, at least) were raised in an era when the AIDS locus had shifted to sub-Saharan Africa. But I would also argue that we have collectively and subconsciously, as a culture, chosen to forget how in the midst of a plague, most Americans were conducting their "business as usual," leaving nearly an entire generation of gay men to die.

In 1987, Congress approved an amendment, sponsored by Jesse Helms, that banned federal spending being used for HIV prevention efforts targeted at gay men - claiming that it would constitute government support and encouragement of homosexuality. This move essentially denied federal money to programs that were among the only hope of slowing the spread of this disease in the queer community, which was at the time the most ravaged by AIDS. The US only began to put major money into treatment and prevention efforts in the face of massive direct action and public pressure by AIDS activists - and even then, it was only when the name of Ryan White, the child who became a spokesman against discrimination against HIV+ children, was attached to the legislation that it succeeded because children like White were perceived of as "innocent victims" of AIDS rather than deaths worth having.

Yet as our planet deals with the fact that AIDS continues to be a global threat to peace and justice, we can see all around America and American government the signs of a culture that has chosen to forget its complicity (because silence truly did equal death) in the right wing's use of AIDS as a genocidal weapon against homosexuals here at home. Perhaps no clearer symbol of this is the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, recently renamed the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. That's right - the site where Rock Hudson very publicly died of AIDS is now named after a man who ignored what was arguably the worst public health crisis of the past century. A man who, the same year Hudson died, ignored much evidence and years of recommendations that casual contact did not cause AIDS and instead publicly declared his uncertainty about the issue, claiming that scientists were "just not sure." In doing this, Reagan missed a crucial moment to dispel a panic that was costing people their lives - not only to AIDS, but to discriminatory landlords, employers, and schools who feared catching the disease from HIV+ (or often, just gay) tenants, employees, students and teachers - and also helped to perpetuate it.

And guess who recommended Reagan lie to America? None other than our very own Chief Justice, John G. Roberts. Only one senator, Russ Feingold, questioned Roberts about those actions during his confirmation hearing, and Roberts still has never apologized. Nor, for that matter, did Ronald Reagan ever apologize for his deliberate silence, or for his misinformation the few times he did speak about AIDS. Yet nowhere in his front-page New York Times obituary did the word AIDS appear.

Why do all of these right wing figures - not just Reagan or Roberts, but the whole cast of religious bigots that still dominate the Republican party - continue to be taken seriously? Why is it that we seem incapable of considering the AIDS crisis as one of the most important events of the 1980s? Is America really so deeply homophobic that we really don't care how the right wing demonized gay men during AIDS? Or did they just succeed so thoroughly in reviving homophobia and reviving old conceptions of homosexuals as diseased that we still believe that AIDS was, in some way, divine retribution not just for homosexuality, but for too much sex (as the gay right today seems to believe)? Or are we simply so ashamed of this past that we've subconsciously chosen to forget it?

These questions urgently need to be answered, for AIDS has shaped our world in profound and powerful ways that we still haven't truly collectively examined. It's high time that, as we look to continue the fight against a global pandemic, we not only remember but truly grapple with its rotten legacy in America.Equally as important is that we recognize that AIDS is still wreaking havoc here at home, among America's black community especially, and that we examine the ways in which these people's class and race lead white America to deliberately ignore them and conduct business as usual today, as straight America did in the 80s.

It really is true that a long memory is the most subversive idea in America.