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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Giessmann

COVID-19 and the ongoing AIDS Crisis

Originally posted on Facebook on March 25, 2020.

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts referencing the AIDS crisis but a few have just felt off and I think that’s due to a few things:

The first is the vast majority of posts I’m seeing historicize it. What I mean is they tend to frame the AIDS crisis as something that happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s but ended once antiretroviral therapies were made available and even more so now with PrEP and U=U. Unfortunately the AIDS crisis is ongoing. It’s not over and the frustration I’m seeing by white gay men who are saying “I wish people cared about us in the ‘80s as much as everyone cares about the COVID-19 pandemic now” neglects to recognize how HIV/AIDS continues to impact others, like communities of colour, substantially. It’s a clear example of how our privilege has caused us to leave others behind once this problem seemingly ceased to be our own. Now I am not saying that grief shouldn’t be expressed but it’s important that we also acknowledge that HIV is not a thing of the past.

I’ve seen a mix of comparisons of the AIDS crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic now and condemnations for doing so at all. While I think there are parallels to be drawn, it is important to recognize how these contexts are wildly different. HIV/AIDS wasn’t addressed by President Reagan until years into the epidemic, after thousands of people had already died, and funding was increasingly difficult to obtain for AIDS education due to conservative politicians like Jessie Helms. Additionally, institutions with money such as the National Institutes of Health weren’t utilizing it effectively, religious leaders continued to dominate public discourses on HIV/AIDS with aggressively homophobic rhetoric, and the public remained indifferent as the virus was painted as exclusively impacting gay men so if you were straight you would be fine. All of these things compounded into decades of rampant homophobia and the deaths of now over 700,000 Americans since 1981.

But there are certain similarities: COVID-19 has been framed as most severe in the elderly and immunocompromised, leaving younger people with the impression they are safe. The reality is young and healthy individuals are also becoming critical and dying. A mild homophobic thread is being drawn from religious leaders but the racist tone being established is much more pronounced. Phrases like “Chinese Virus” obviously mimic the terms “Gay Plague” or “Gay Cancer” that were spouted decades ago and we have a president who refuses to use the appropriate terminology for the virus. A culture of paranoia and animosity has been fostered, resulting in vivid examples of violence and greed as people fight for resources and take advantage of the fear by gouging prices and hoarding. We have a substantial number of indifferent people in the public who refuse to listen to recommendations by healthcare professionals and refuse to practice social distancing, see this as a terrible inconvenience, and believe their actions will not carry significant consequences for others.

Something I want to encourage veterans of the ongoing AIDS crisis to keep in mind is getting angry about the parallels being drawn isn’t productive. Comparing subjective experiences of grief and violence is not helpful and I don’t imagine it makes anyone feel better. The hostility Asian-Americans are experiencing right now should not have its severity or impact defined by white gay men. We are witnessing mass trauma as people are laid off, racism and homophobia express themselves in our communities and administration, domestic violence is given fertile circumstances, and resources people rely on have to quickly adapt to the situation and may be less easily accessed.

With all this being said, I want to offer a small list of book recommendations. All of them relate to the AIDS crisis and I’ve tried to pick examples that are easier to read and utilize less theory. I’ve been fortunate to spend a great deal of time with books like these for the last two years as I worked towards my thesis and I think they have provided a great deal of critical awareness regarding illness and death and have also helped me navigate the current pandemic. I think they’re also important for younger members of the LGBTQAI+ community to read in particular, especially young gay men who may be dismissing the threat of COVID-19 or who show little empathy and compassion for older members of the community who are survivors.

Gentrification of the Mind (Pictured) by Sarah Schulman (If you’re going to read one from this list, please make it this one. Schulman manages to address the grief and pain many experienced while simultaneously recognizing how capitalism contributed to the spread and severity of the illness.)

Reports from the holocaust: the making of an AIDS activist by Larry Kramer (Kramer is very blunt and these are essays and articles he wrote during the ‘80s and ‘90s. His views can be concerning, particularly how he frames safe sex and gay culture, but they are an important perspective to acknowledge and he is a prominent figure in AIDS activism.)

Melancholia and Moralism by Douglas Crimp (Crimp disputes a few of Kramer’s positions and I appreciate that, like Schulman, he maintains a criticality of capitalism and other oppressive structures throughout his writing and acknowledges the complexity of these issues.)

If you’d like some readings with more theory or particular focuses:

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag (Sontag addresses the different ways illnesses are framed, particularly cancer and AIDS, as one elicits sympathy and another condemnation or judgement.)

Unlimited Intimacy by Tim Dean (This one explores the culture of barebacking and bug-chasing, or seeking out HIV-positive partners, and has provided some interesting points of reflection for how we understand viruses and stigma.)

Queer Necropolitics edited by Jin Haritaworn, Ali Kuntsman, and Silvia Posocco (This is several different essays but has several addressing how HIV/AIDS impacts communities of colour. I found it to be a very humbling read and a necessary disruption from the other books I have read which are predominantly written by white authors.)

Other resources:

We Were Here by David Weissman (This is a documentary interviewing several people who experienced the ‘80s and ‘90s firsthand. Their stories are heartbreaking and I think being able to listen and watch them recount those memories is important.)

Melanoia: Transformation Through AIDS Archives and Activism co-curated by Katherine Cheairs and Dr. Alexandra Juhasz (This was an art exhibition that also featured videos. It was about incarcerated HIV-positive black women and the community they built to support one another in and out of prison. I’m not sure where you can find the videos but I recommend reading what you can online about it regardless.)

THE AIDS MEMORIAL on Instagram (This account allows community members to share photos and stories of people who have died of AIDS-related complications. It has thousands of posts and I encourage people to go through them to read the heartfelt messages that people are generously sharing about their loved ones.)

Take care of yourselves.

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