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As HIV Activists in the Age of Trump, We Need to Look Beyond the Gay Paradigm

December 6, 2016

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How White Supremacy Blocked Recognition of HIV's Impact

As someone involved with the AIDS response for almost 15 years in the U.S. and Canada, and as someone who has recently been researching the lives of people living with HIV before 1981, it seems to me that, with hindsight, we can see that white supremacy prevented people from seeing HIV's impact in the U.S. throughout the 1970s and after because premature death within already minoritized communities was accepted. And then homophobia -- coming from the president, no less -- prevented the U.S. government from stopping it.

This inability to see the impact of HIV amid minoritized communities beyond the gay community exists to this day. Interviewed by The New York Times, an unnamed women now living with HIV in Indiana after the swell of new cases said, "I thought it was just a homosexual disease." The narrow ways in which HIV gets discussed in the U.S. puts people's health at risk; this coupled with health care systems under attack spells disaster in the years to come. To change this, we need to continue to address the homophobia that exacerbates the ongoing crisis, while also seeing HIV within the bigger picture.

Words Matter -- and So Does the Helms Amendment

Part of the reason journalists have been able to make the conversion therapy link is the vagueness of Pence's language -- an Orwellian result of the Helms' amendment to the 1987 AIDS appropriation bill, which prohibited the use of federal tax dollars for AIDS education materials that "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities."

In the AIDS funding landscape that Pence's conservative forefathers created, communication around AIDS prevention is opaque. As someone who has worked at AIDS service organizations, the phrase "change their sexual behavior" is familiar to me as the language used in grant reports, funding requests and even workshops.


Condoms were once a "change in sexual behavior" and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) certainly is a "change in sexual behavior." Even offering to enroll people in drug rehabilitation as a funded HIV-prevention activity can often be, in part, an attempt to change the sexual behavior sometimes associated with the economics and marginalization of drug use.

For many, such as Rea Carey, the executive director of the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force, Pence's lack of clarity in his 2000 campaign literature was an intentional dog whistle of homophobia. However, Isaac Sharp, a social ethicist and Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on American evangelicalism, told me that he believes Pence's wording was not a specific call for conversion therapy. Rather, Sharp thinks Pence was signaling a broader message: that he will fight to protect what is called religious freedom.

This would fall in line within the long tradition of the Christian right using AIDS to galvanize its base in the face of changing cultural norms (as Anthony Petro charts in his book After the Wrath of God). Along this line of thinking, HIV funding (along with money for reproductive health) is a casualty of the larger fight to maintain the influence of the Christian right in the face of what Pence and others see as an erosion of their power and the U.S.'s claim for moral superiority. If anything is being dog whistled, it is white supremacy and a perversion of Christian values.

The question for us in the movement is, then, with a Trump/Pence administration, what should be done now when it comes HIV/AIDS?

When considering this challenge, it's worth noting that Trump's second act in his 100-day action plan to make America great again is a hiring freeze on federal employees except in the military, public safety and public health. As activist and scholar Ian Bradley Perrin noted when we discussed this story, it is no accident that Trump has weaponized public health as part of the militarized police state. Adding to the worry, Trump is nominating conservative Representative Tom Price as his choice for health secretary.

Frustration as an Activist Tool

Frustration can be a useful tool, especially when it comes to activism. It helps me tap into my passion and helps me articulate problems I see in the world. As I look at my friends doing the work, it is clear that the days ahead will be difficult. Many were looking to move on to second or third acts. People are tired, communities are fractured and many issues big and small need addressing to reduce the harm of HIV and end the crisis.

Exacerbating all of this is the fact that unacknowledged early deaths, homophobic gay exceptionalism and white supremacy are baked into the foundation of AIDS activism in the U.S. While some -- namely those in the grassroots, black communities and communities of color dealing with HIV -- acknowledge the role that race, class, gender and other lenses play within the epidemic, most often the mainstream does not. The story of AIDS is overly narrow within many circles, as it was this summer in the attention paid to decades-old campaign literature instead of the more recent, specific impact of Pence's policies in Indiana.

In the stories we tell about HIV/AIDS in America, we have forsaken communities of color, the rural, the poor, women (cis and trans) and people who inject drugs. In the dim light of a Trump administration, this mistake will compound our problems. In the days ahead, we would be wise to reconnect with the intersectional past of the HIV response and address the specificity of the crisis, while also chopping away at the systemic issues at the root of the epidemic.

Canadian born Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS; he received his M.A. at Union Theological Seminary where he studied Christian Ethics and HIV/AIDS. Currently Kerr teaches at The New School.

Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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