Despite being such a recent subject in history, HIV/AIDS is a subject that, until recently, I knew little to nothing about. The height of the AIDS epidemic took place within a decade of my birth, yet it has barely touched my life outside a few spare lines in a textbook- a new virus appeared and lots of people were infected quickly. Lots of people died just as quickly, but then new medicines were invented to help manage the disease and now, even though people were still being infected with AIDS, it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. This was the extent of my knowledge on the subject. Even though I wondered how it was able to spread so quickly, why they never managed to find a cure, why there was such a stigma surrounding those who had the disease, as a sheltered, white, middle class kid who grew up in a sheltered, white, middle class community it was easy for me to move on, to let the subject become a mere blip in history.
With no direct ties to the people or communities affected by AIDS, it wasn’t until moving to an urban area and meeting peers with drastically different life experiences than my own, that I began to understand the larger context of issues such as the AIDS epidemic. Even now, reading articles and researching for this assignment, I learned of so much- from important events throughout the crisis to nuanced ideas of identity and the effect of AIDS- that I had previously been unaware of. Each article required for this assignment provided a different voice on the subject, but there were several overarching themes linking them together, highlighting the lessons we learned from the AIDS epidemic and providing warning of the ones we didn’t.
The first piece I read was Why We Fight by Vito Russo. This was a good place to start as it took me directly into the passion and pain of a person who was experiencing the AIDS epidemic firsthand. Direct accounts like this are equally as inspiring as they are heartbreaking. His analogy of enduring “a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches” is especially moving, and while reading this speech I couldn’t help but to compare my own ignorance of the AIDS epidemic to this willful lack of action to combat the disease simply because of who it affected. This mentality of “we don’t need to pay attention because its not effecting the rest of us” is one that continues to live on in the discourse surrounding any issue that disproportionately affects marginalized communities, and it’s something that I am guilty of thinking at least a few times.
Russo’s speech highlights the struggles of those affected by AIDS during the height of the epidemic, especially within the gay community. They had to live with a debilitating disease while combating indifference, fear, and panic perpetuated through bigotry, media sensationalism, and willful lack of action by the powers that be. They had to watch their friends and loved ones die wondering if action had been taken, if they had mattered to those with power, would these friends and loved ones still be alive? And when education and prevention measures were actually taken, they were targeted towards the very people who had had the privilege to ignore the AIDS epidemic in the first place. This was a final punch in the gut, a reminder that they were scapegoats who had to fight for representation within, and control of the narrative surrounding, their own struggle. This leads to Russo’s final statement, the rallying cry of this speech- an affirmation that yes, we matter. And, despite everything thrown against us, we can fight to rise above this disease and dismantle the system that is killing us.
The next piece, Chapter 1 of Structural Intimacies: Sexual Stories in the Black AIDS Epidemic by Sonja Mackenzie focused more on the black experience of AIDS, specifically within the San Francisco bay area. This piece highlights the unique perceptions of AIDS within this community, and how surrounding socio-economic factors defined their interpretation of the disease. The article overviews how factors such as “corner store culture”, internal prejudice, and conspiracy theories surrounding the epidemic shaped this community’s beliefs and reactions to AIDS.
The overall theme of this article highlights the disparity between the separate black and white experiences with AIDS. It shows that, even within communities commonly perceived to be diverse and progressive such as San Francisco, black communities continue to be marginalized. For me it brings to mind a question- what if the AIDS epidemic had primarily affected the black community rather than the gay community? As much of a struggle as it was for those affected to gain support, would it have been even worse if the disease had been most commonly associated with race rather than sexuality? The experiences of black people with AIDS have been minimized as it is- would the epidemic have been swept under the rug entirely had a larger percentage of those affected not been white men? As racial disparity has continued to grow in the San Francisco bay area, so has the number of black people being affected by AIDS, and this article serves to highlight that long term marginalization and institutionalized racism have created a disproportionate impact of AIDS on the black community and fueled unique perceptions and beliefs of the disease within that community.
Finally, Could Zika be the Next HIV? By Laurie Garrett draws a connection between the AIDS epidemic and the current Zika outbreak. The article points out some striking similarities between the two diseases from their origin in Africa, to their rarity among humans. It also points to a concerning development with Zika, one that I myself had not been aware of- the leap from dependency on mosquitoes for transmission to the ability to be sexually transmitted from one person to another. I’m not the only one that didn’t know this- data collected for the article shows a disturbing lack of knowledge about Zika among the American public. It also draws a connection to the groups affected by these diseases. Zika has had a disproportionate effect on women and, until recently, has been almost entirely focused in South and Central America. Populations within these categories already face bigotry within the US, and association with a disease such as Zika could fuel further hate. Already we see lack of knowledge and action on this disease becoming a major contributing factor to its spread. And while AIDS and Zika remain two totally separate issues, this article highlights the fact that lack of action and knowledge may contribute to an AIDS epidemic scale disaster with the Zika virus.
Each of these sources provides a different story about the AIDS epidemic. Together, these differing voices combine into overarching themes surrounding this disease. They speak to the harmful effects of ignorance and how a person’s race, gender, and sexuality affect not just socio economic status, but their experience with diseases such as AIDS. It shows the perception that these diseases don’t truly matter until they effect the “right people”. And these prejudices linger today, revealing themselves in newfound ways, such as with the Zika virus. This creates an overall theme of a history, no matter how recent and devastating, doomed to repeat itself unless something is done to disrupt this cycle of willful ignorance. When researching other projects related to the AIDS epidemic, I found myself drawn to projects such as A Day Without Art and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. These projects truly portray the enormity of the AIDS epidemic and serve to have an impact both on those directly affected by the disease and those whose lives have never been touched by it. Whether through projects such as these, or actual education and recognition of the true nature of the crisis in the classroom, there needs to be a decrease in ignorance and an increase in engagement around the subject of AIDS if we are ever to provide its victims justice and prevent new health crises in the future.