National HIV Testing Day was first observed on June 27, 1995––14 years after AIDS was finally recognized by the government. In the time span between its official recognition (initially called a "rare cancer" affecting "homosexuals" in The New York Times) and the national holiday promoting prevention for the spread of the infection, most of what is often considered as the war against the "AIDS epidemic" was fought, with millions losing their lives to racism and homophobia-fueled ill-preparedness along the way.
In recent years, media organizations have seemed eager to declare this war against AIDS over, or at least nearing completion. In 2013, CNN published an article with the headline "HIV no longer considered death sentence", which is indicative of much of the messaging surrounding the virus today. "Relax," the story goes, "there is medicine. This doesn't have to kill you." But for many, the struggle is not yet over, and the primary battle hasn't even begun.
By Hari Ziyad*, AFROPUNK Writer
While by some accounts homophobia has been steadily subsiding (in America at least), and perhaps a level-headed one is the best approach, we have yet to reckon with the structural anti-Blackness that led to so many deaths during the height of the epidemic. At an AIDS Remembrance event hosted by PEN America at the AIDS Memorial in NYC last week, AIDS historian and scholar Sarah Schulman recounted how this structural violence, which cannot be uncoupled from class violence, was the reason it took so long for HIV to be recognized by "The New York Crimes" in the first place. Many homeless and queer people of color had long been documenting the spread of this disease before 1981, and pushing for resources to help combat it without relief.
In a more recent New York Times article titled "America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic", Linda Villarosa outlines how anti-Blackness not only played a roll in the way the virus was ignored and whom resources were allocated toward in the past, but how it still does to this day. Villarosa explains:
"Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using the first comprehensive national estimates of lifetime risk of H.I.V. for several key populations, predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus. That compares with a lifetime risk of one in 99 for all Americans and one in 11 for white gay and bisexual men. To offer more perspective: Swaziland, a tiny African nation, has the world’s highest rate of H.I.V., at 28.8 percent of the population. If gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate would surpass that of this impoverished African nation — and all other nations."
HIV rates in Black women and trans individuals also far surpass the larger community. Clearly, the epidemic is not over for many, and if we are serious about prevention today, we should be just serious about rectifying why these specific struggles persist.
I spoke with Michael Camacho, NYC Regional Director for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the largest HIV non-profits organization in the world, about the major impediments to the organization's work. "I would say (the issue) is mostly the political structure," Camacho explained. "When you look at the Affordable Care Act and you look at Medicare expansion, so many of the Southern Republican states did not move forward. This was based on politics, not based on helping people. And these are the states that are kind of crumbling in terms of care for queer communities of color. For example, Mississippi State no longer offers HIV tests so folks on Medicaid have to pay $25 just to get a test at this point."
Camacho notes that when faced with these challenges, the priorities of Gay Movement reflect the fact that the face of the epidemic is no longer white. "We're dealing with bathroom laws right now. It's like, 'really? that's what we're focused on? We don't have health care.'"
As the work of Schulman and other HIV activists highlight, any true war against AIDS would ultimately have to reckon with how anti-Blackness is structured. In "Hunted by the state: HIV, Black folks, & how advocacy fails us," Timothy DuWhite argues that "we cannot properly have a conversation about HIV within the black community without also having a conversation about gentrification, or minimum wage, or food justice, or gender justice, or climate change, or poverty, or most importantly prison." For example, because Black people are disproportionately affected by the prison system, and prison correlates to lower HIV health outcomes, the HIV fight must incorporate prison abolitionist perspectives to fully engage this reality.
Camacho says AIDS Healthcare Foundation understands the urgent need to incorporate understandings of structural racism and violence in its work. "We have initiatives rooted in specific communities: For the African American community we have the Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition (B.L.A.C.C.), we have one for the Latino Community called L.O.U.D., and one for the transgender community."
Still, Camacho understands that the solution will take more than NGOs crafting new initiatives around different identities. "We see PrEP (a pill for HIV prevention) being heralded, but who's getting left on the sidelines are still communities of color––communities that don't have access to healthcare. It's all the same people who have problems getting treatment when HIV positive. So you're facing the same barriers the people who are trying to say HIV negative." And so often, that barrier is anti-Blackness.
Banner photo via VOA News
*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.