My HIV/AIDS Activism Includes Fighting for Racial Justice
Intersectionality: noun/the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems or disadvantage.
-- From Oxford Dictionaries.com
The ding on Facebook alerted me to a new reply to a post I had put up hours before, responding to the news that two more men of color had been assassinated at the hands of police in two different U.S. cities, hours apart. It feels as if the details don't even matter, since in the end an investigation will reveal that the police were completely justified in their use of deadly force. Below is the comment that the person chose write:
Aaron, I respect your work in HIV advocacy[;] however, some of your views stand to alienate many who may otherwise be sympathetic to that cause. You may want to reevaluate what is most important. If you continue on the course your [sic] on with public statements, I would urge you to leave HIV advocacy because you are doing the cause tremendous harm.
I found this comment disturbing but also telling about many people's mindsets in our country. I also found it disturbing that this response came from a person who considers themself to be an HIV/AIDS activist. Have we forgotten that there was once a time when people stood with us in protest even if they were not impacted by HIV/AIDS? At action after action, protest after protest, people were there to take up the banner on behalf of those living and dying as result of AIDS-related illness. Because we have better medications and improved quality of life as people living with HIV, do we now turn a blind-eye to those among us who are being slaughtered?
People do not need to die, whether it is as a result of AIDS-related illnesses or at the hands of police! What I and many others advocate for might originate from different mechanisms of injustice, but they often impact the same populations. As an activist, I am only as strong as the people I am able to collaborate with. Today I might walk the line on behalf of cancer research and tomorrow, when I need people to show up to an HIV protest, guess who will be there: those same people whom I stood with for cancer research.
I am not simply an activist for HIV/AIDS related injustices. I fight for social justice on all fronts. I took it to heart when I read Dr. King's famous words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." As a result of that, there was no conceivable way that I could stop fighting along others in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Two years ago, I found myself on the streets of St. Louis, Missouri, as our community struggled to come to terms with the death of Mike Brown and others at the hands of police officers. A community rose and let their voices be heard. The voices came in all forms, everything from yelling and destruction, to burning sage and meditation, but all voices were heard. As we marched in Ferguson, I was always amazed that the people came in every shape, size and color. It was as if a community that had never been listened to now had control of the microphone, and we were not leaving until things changed. These same faces were also those of my clients and those whom I see in clinic or at various outreach events.
Many of the conversations post-Ferguson were about intersectionality and how there are many aspects converging around the topic of race. For me, as an HIV activist, the topic of HIV infections among black and brown communities coupled with HIV criminalization was of special interest. In the weeks and months that followed, there were many conversations to help teach white allies such as myself exactly how we could best assist the movement. Racial inequality has always been an especially interesting topic for me to write about. Several years ago I wrote a piece titled, "What if Ryan White Would Have Been Black," which pointed out that Ryan achieved a lot because he was white.
I use the voice that I have been given to try and shine a light on injustices that I see. For the last five years I have advocated on behalf of those coming out of state and federal prisons, many living with HIV/AIDS and/or hepatitis. Now I am a student working on my masters of social work from Saint Louis University's School of Social Work. Ethically, morally and on sheer principle, I stand with the outcast: the individuals and communities whom society chooses to discount, demoralize, murder and disregard.
As a human, I cannot and will not sit idle while I see those around me being assassinated at the hands of a system that doesn't value black and brown bodies. I cannot and will not forget that even though quality of life has improved for me as a white, gay cis-gender male, I have brothers and sisters -- queer and trans and all people of color -- who are fighting simply to exist. They are fighting to have space in a world that is increasingly telling them that they do not matter.
I would rather die standing with my brothers and sisters, queer and trans and all people of color than to exist in a world where my voice adds to the rhetoric that erases, kills, ignores, denies and attempts to invalidate anyone who isn't white. If that makes you uncomfortable, I would challenge you to remember that there was once a time when HIV/AIDS activists fought for access to drugs such as AZT and that made people uncomfortable.
Read Aaron's blog, My HIV Journey.