It's been a little over three decades since HIV/AIDS was first discovered in the early 80s and we've come a long way on many fronts.
From the very start, blame for the virus was assigned to the gay community. Initially labeled Gay Related Immune Disease (GRID), many saw HIV as a sign of, or punishment for, what they considered immoral behavior. To a society characterized by explicit homophobia, the gaunt, drawn faces of AIDS victims were the gay community's scarlet letter, a public sign of their transgression. And for the gay community, watching their friends and loved ones fall before the feet of this great plague, HIV became a rallying cry for the LGBT movement.
Fast forward to 2014. Marriage equality passed in Maine by popular vote. The Defense of Marriage Act has been crippled. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in many states throughout the nation enjoy protections from many forms of discrimination. HIV has fallen from the spotlight in the wake of increasingly effective treatments.
While HIV is still frequently considered a 'gay disease', it does not often bear the physical stamp of a wasting disease that it once did. In part as a result of this, the disease has slipped from the public eye. Meanwhile efforts to shift the narrative have helped to defray the stigma that continues to surround the virus.
The 'medicalization' of HIV has increasingly helped move the public discourse around HIV from one of moral indecency to one of biological illness. This has the potential to reduce the malleable stigma that people living with HIV continue to face today. But it's important that while redefining HIV as a biomedical issue, we recognize that the disease, and the disproportionate toll it has taken on the gay community, is a symptom of something far deeper, something enmeshed in the very fabric of our society: marginalization. In short, HIV is not JUST a medical issue, it is a social justice issue as well.
To this day, HIV is felt most poignantly by the gay community, and gay men of color in particular. The disparate spread of the disease is a symptom of continued and historical stigma and discrimination, leveled against the gay community. Less explicit now, but present nonetheless. Present in loaded silences, judging looks, off hand remarks and subtle rejection. Present in the disproportionate incidence of bullying and harassment, of depression and suicive, and of HIV.
The epidemic of HIV within the gay community is stigma made flesh. Stigma etched into the very cells of the bodies that have borne its weight. And while those bodies may no longer waste from AIDS as they once did, their numbers continue to grow. They face a double stigma, both due to their sexual orientation as well as their HIV status. They face a lifetime of grueling treatment. They face rapid aging and cognitive decline.
The disproportionate spread of HIV within the gay community is a social injustice. One that requires the full weight of the LGBT movement and advocates for equality to redress. In honor of Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day ponder this, and pledge yourself to ending HIV. Join the Down East AIDS Network and many others in combatting stigma and discrimination; in fighting for social justice; in realizing the end of HIV.
Down East AIDS Network