Though it still kills thousands of people annually, HIV is no longer on America's radar. Here's why that's both good and horrible.
Outside of a committed, long-term relationship, I have never had unprotected intercourse. The thought of having sex without a condom gives me pause for a lot of reasons, the biggest of which is that, as someone who just last week ate hamburger buns for dinner, the prospect of having to feed a child multiple times a day terrifies me. I’m also afraid of getting herpes or HPV. I wear condoms for a lot of reasons, but never because I’m scared of getting AIDS.
Before you scoff, I don’t think I’m invincible (though some people are immune to AIDS). I’m just aware of current AIDS demographics. In 2009, according to the CDC, the vast majority of new HIV infections were from male-to-male sex. Because I’m not gay, and because I don’t use intravenous drugs, my best shot at contracting HIV is via heterosexual contact. But of the thousands of cases in which heterosexual sex led to HIV in 2009, all of those were qualified with an asterisk by the CDC: “Heterosexual contact with a person known to have, or to be at high risk for, HIV infection”—drug addicts, sex workers, people in jail. I’m a well-educated person who makes a decent living, and my sexual partners tend to fit that description as well. The hard truth is that people like me don’t get AIDS anymore; poor people and gay people get AIDS, and that’s why everyone’s forgotten about it.
Thirty years ago, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, people called AIDS the “gay cancer,” and loopy politician Lyndon LaRouche Jr. accused gays of staging an “AIDS coverup.” But it wasn’t long until everyone learned that AIDS wasn’t discriminatory: Ryan White died in 1990 at the age of 18 after getting AIDS from a blood transfusion. Then Elizabeth Glaser, wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser, also contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion while giving birth. She unknowingly spread the disease to her daughter, Ariel, by breastfeeding, and they were both gone by 1994. With even kids and married women getting AIDS, and an undeveloped understanding of how the disease was spread, many Americans started to feel susceptible themselves. This wasn’t a gay plague found only in the bathhouses of San Francisco; this was a global killer popping up in school cafeterias in Indiana and millionaires’ parties in Hollywood.
One of the sickest realities about the fight against AIDS is how helpful it was when people outside of the gay community began dying. Once people were confident that even they and their families could fall victim to HIV, and that it wasn’t just “immoral” homosexuals getting sick, public awareness and education shot up—go figure. TV shows started running “very special” AIDS episodes, And the Band Played On was a hit, and musicians like TLC started using condoms to make fashion statements. In 1992, artist and AIDS patient Mary Fisher addressed the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. “Tonight, I represent an AIDS community whose members have been reluctantly drafted from every segment of American society,” she said. “Though I am white and a mother, I am one with a black infant struggling with tubes in a Philadelphia hospital. Though I am female and contracted this disease in marriage and enjoy the warm support of my family, I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family’s rejection.”
All the AIDS activism paid off in quantifiable ways. New instances of HIV infections declined and then leveled off throughout the ‘90s, while people also started dying less from complications from AIDS. As we began “winning” in our fight against the disease, many Americans felt a sense of security. Whereas in 1989 AIDS awareness was one of “the government’s chief public health priorities,” a 2009 press release from the Center for Global Health Policy chastised President Obama’s paltry AIDS funding, saying it was “even worse than we had feared. With this spending request, Obama has broken his campaign promise to provide $1 billion a year in new money for global AIDS.”
AIDS has hasn’t just disappeared from politics, it’s nearly invisible in culture, too. Gone are the red ribbons on lapels and touching speeches about AIDS deaths at every Hollywood awards show. Gone are MTV’s smart, groundbreaking looks at young people’s love lives, safe or otherwise. Gone are mainstream movies about the AIDS epidemic. Gone are hit songs about AIDS victims from huge pop stars. When HIV didn’t end up being as destructive as many had feared, when it stopped being the boogeyman under everyone’s bed, it set millions of us on a dangerous path of complacency.
In a way, it’s a good sign that many Americans have forgotten about HIV. Fewer of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and friends are dying of AIDS, which means we think about it less and less. But our success in mitigating the impact of AIDS has also led us to stop caring about the people for whom it’s still a serious problem: poor blacks, poor Latinos, poor gays, the prison population. These are people with whom many Americans have little to no intimate contact, and thus no sicknesses to fear.
When bigots used to call for a quarantine of AIDS patients, I’m sure many of them envisioned high walls and guarded parapets. Today society has created the greatest AIDS quarantine known to man: poverty. In a 2010 study of heterosexuals in 23 high-poverty neighborhoods, the CDC found that one in every 42 Americans living below the poverty line in those communities was infected with HIV. And in the predominately black Washington, DC, there is an HIV prevalence of 3.2 percent for people over 12, a rate comparable to parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Even when I was living in DC, the thought that I might catch HIV never once crossed my mind. Something that's still a major burden for millions does not pose a significant threat to me, a heterosexual male living well above the poverty line. AIDS is not something I'm confronted with at my $9-a-drink bars or vegan potlucks. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 Americans continue to perish from AIDS annually.
An old and wildly famous AIDS activism slogan is “Silence equals death.” It’s important to always remember that, especially if you’re not the one dying.
photo via LGBTPOV