As someone who is HIV positive, I’ve lived the better part of my adulthood fighting narratives of dirtiness. Long before COVID-19, and before the world was ready, HIV emerged to be one of the most devastating retroviruses ever. The political and social reality that HIV-impacted elders and ancestors found themselves within was rife with blame, hatefulness, and stigma. If you’re on Twitter, you’ll see varying posts from people who tested COVID-19 positive, micro-journaling about the experience and discussing the symptoms. Free to disclose in a world showing impeccable solidarity to a host of the newly infected and those who have died. That wasn’t the reality for me—or many others.
Bloodied, spare-bodied, and forgotten, that’s how so many succumbed to AIDS. Their legacy paraded as martyrdom, as their pain, anguish, and bodies—often stiff from rigor—were sometimes found in a home weeks after death. There are many narratives we don’t know about, sullied and sunken by the bombast of fiery rhetoric mixed with the oppression of patriarchy. The world told them they were dying because abnormal desire piqued them. Those whose shoulders I stand upon fell ill to the silence of structural violence fomented by homophobia. COVID-19 is no comparison to the trail of hauntings yet to be realized from the ongoing HIV epidemic.
According to the World Health Organization, about 32 million people have died from HIV infection. One of the earliest cases was Robert Rayford, a Black teen in St. Louis, who died of AIDS 12 years before the earliest cases of AIDS were reported in The New York Times in 1981. During the height of that pandemic, elected officials and others brutally levied hate speech about people newly and shortly living with HIV. It’s been recorded that the lack of response to the emerging crisis wasn’t met with sympathy from President Reagan—and remember that then–Press Secretary Larry Speakes laughed while talking about the epidemic’s devastation.
During the height of exponential loss from AIDS, politicians and others peddled in verbiage that caused AIDS hysteria. According to Trevor Hoppe’s book Punishing Disease: HIV and the Criminalization of Sickness, former Indiana Rep. Don Boys stated that “AIDS carriers are a threat to society” and that he was “weary of politicians who pander to perverts.” This, coupled with the glaring narrative that HIV conquered the immoral gays, injection-drug users, and sex workers, ascribing moralism to this new infection, made the world collectively turn its back on an emerging juggernaut. ACT UP activists had to literally bring the ashes of loved ones and toss them onto the White House lawn to push for action. This was what Cornell English professor Dagmawi Woubshet, Ph.D., calls a “political funeral” that “reanimated the body of the dead to concretize deaths the public refused to see.”
COVID-19 has emerged with its share of anti-Asian racism. People are social distancing, but their racism has led them to abandon Asian cultural centers like Chinatowns across the United States. All this proves that oppression thrives in the pressure cookers of health emergencies. Yes, we’re at a very different point in history: When HIV emerged, there was no social media, no infrastructure or collective will to confront a health epidemic that was taking out people on society’s margins. The truth about the coronavirus is the self-same truth about HIV: It can infect most of us. The difference in response has to do with the work of HIV movements, a globalized world, and the stratification of infections from coronavirus.
The rapid response to COVID-19, the sympathetic responses, the rush for a vaccine—all of this—is unprecedented. And all of these positive happenings have origins in the AIDS epidemic. The difference in response is because of HIV movements. The collective sharing of information and scientific knowledge at a rapid pace, and the push to accelerate clinical trials, are because so many in ACT UP and others became agitated with the lack of governmental response and became the experts we needed to move a nation into action.
During this epidemic, we’ve read stories of infected heads of state, like the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson, and celebrities such as Tom Hanks. Disclosure for COVID-19 is embraced so easily months after its discovery, a vastly different situation from the violence of disclosure politics for HIV-positive people. I’ve been horribly stigmatized, rejected, and not supported when I’ve told others about my HIV. It’s wild to live in this moment and see this juxtaposition.
As we thrive in this new uncertainty, let’s honor those whose labor built the pathways to address this global crisis, and in doing so, remember a valuable lesson: that plagues and epidemics impact the most vulnerable, disproportionately, including incarcerated communities, and we must fight like hell so that they can continue to live in the world that HIV built.