An Issue of Social Justice

By Rob Banaszak on June 17, 2011 in AIDS at 30

by Shannon Wyss
AIDS United Grants Manager

When HIV/AIDS first hit the public consciousness in 1981, I was nine years old.  I remember little of the disease in its first decade. My first recollection was when I was watching the evening news, probably in the mid-‘80s. I remember a graphic projected on the screen to the right of the newscaster’s head. It consisted solely of the word “AIDS” in big red letters except that in place of the letter “I,” it had a test tube filled with blood. I don’t remember wondering what AIDS was, so I must have heard about it already. And yet that graphic sticks in my mind, all these years later.

So there is a degree to which HIV has always been a part of my world. While I technically experienced a “world without AIDS,” those years were early in my life, before thoughts of sex, sexuality, drug use, or anything else related to HIV. Growing up, I was fortunate to go to a school that, while devoutly Catholic, taught honest sex education to its students. Learning about safer sex was always a part of my school-based sex ed curriculum, and HIV was always taught in biology classes – although the teachers were very clear that any sexual activity outside of a monogamous, heterosexual, committed-in-marriage relationship for the purposes of procreation was both wrong and a sin. An interesting mix of the progressive and pragmatic with the conservative.

And yet, to a great extent, HIV/AIDS did not enter my life until college. Certainly, I knew about the disease’s existence. But I did not know anyone “out” about her/his HIV status until early adulthood. HIV was “out there,” a terrible scourge that I knew disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men but that did not affect my personal life. So I missed the early years – the certain death sentence that was an HIV diagnosis, attending funeral after funeral, watching friends and loved ones die a horrible death, the survivor’s guilt, the ACT UP rallies, the civil disobedience arrests.

All of those things have had an incredibly deep – indeed, a devastating – impact on the LGBTQ community, which I proudly and eagerly joined in college in 1993. HIV became more personal to me then. And yet it was still several years before I knew anyone who was out about having HIV or AIDS – and I only learned about his diagnosis after his death. Another individual, whom I knew in high school, is suspected to have died of AIDS-related complications while I was in college. But if true, that fact has been quite successfully shrouded from the public.

Being queer-identified has made HIV more “real” in some ways. I am part of a highly-stigmatized community. And that very stigma is what helps to put my sisters and brothers at greater risk of being infected. But it is not only LGBTQ people who live with this stigma. Prejudice exists against many other groups in society – people of color, immigrants, women and girls, youth, drug users, sex workers, and so many others. Members of those communities are, not coincidentally, also at great risk for HIV/AIDS. What puts them at risk is not their identities but the results of the hatred, stress, and fear under which they must live.

So while, yes, HIV/AIDS is a medical issue, it is more importantly an issue of social justice.  And while, yes, “everyone is at risk for HIV,” some are more at risk than others. And that risk springs directly from the prejudices and unequal distribution of power and resources in our country – indeed, in our world.

The fight against HIV will not be won solely by a vaccine or by distributing billions of condoms and clean needles and containers of spermicide. The fight against HIV will be won only by eliminating racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, and a host of other hatreds and institutional inequalities that keep some people in power and control at the expense of their fellow human beings. This is why I am honored to be a part of the fight against HIV/AIDS.

What concerns me, 30 years into this epidemic, is that we seem to have learned little about the connections between HIV and inequality, between AIDS and power and privilege and prejudice. We are very good, now, at doling out medicine. But we aren’t always very good at making prevention messages relevant to folks’ everyday lives, at keeping people under the care of a doctor once they are diagnosed, at making sure everyone can afford her/his HIV drugs, at reaching at-risk communities. And we, as a country, seem to be avoiding at all costs larger discussions about all those hatreds and inequalities that we must get rid of in order to eradicate HIV.

But that is probably not too surprising. As a country, we have yet to have a national dialogue on any of the things listed above. Why should we treat HIV any differently? But it is just such honest, painful, but necessary discussions that must be had to win the fight against HIV – and for us to reach our full potential as individuals, as one community and as various communities, as a country, and as a world of interconnected human beings.

I am hopeful that those of us who realize the critical importance of making our society – our world – a more just, peaceful, and healthy place can continue to influence those around us who may not be “there” yet. We can attempt to model that all-important goal of Social Justice not only through our jobs but through our interactions with our families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, religious communities, and strangers on the street.

While I cannot change the world, I will work as hard as I can to improve my little corner of it so that no one has to live either with HIV/AIDS or with the hatred, fear, and inequality that put so many at risk for this completely unnecessary, totally preventable, and yet still incurable disease.

What will you do to help stop HIV?

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