The first decade of the emergence of HIV/AIDS epidemic was marked—perhaps marred—by the emergence of terrible stigmas against those who were infected with the disease, or associated with the disease. However, to say that the stigmas that came from the HIV/AIDS epidemic were something new and something to do solely with the emergence of this new disease is not correct. Rather, the stigmas associated with the emergence of HIV/AIDS were, as we well recognize today, merely a repackaging of the stigmas associated with certain groups of people. Primarily, this was homosexual individuals, but also individuals who engage in risky sexual behavior or peruse illegal drugs.
Dr. James Colgrove, in Epidemic City addresses the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in his fourth chapter. He describes the various reactions to the disease, primarily within New York City. In particular, he discusses the dispute between the city’s Board of Education and two individual community school boards in 1985 over whether children infected with HIV/AIDS should be allowed to attend school. Of course, looking back upon this, we can easily recognize the flawed understanding inherent in suggesting that individuals possessing a disease spread only through direct exposure to certain bodily fluids. We recognize this dispute as a manifestation of the stigma harbored against those infected with the disease.
The source of the stigma is readily understood from the early history of the disease’s recognition. Dr. Jeffrey Week’s in his chapter “AIDS and the Regulation of Sexuality” describes the affiliation of the disease with homosexual individuals. He describes how the public health mobilization to this disease (in England, but we understand the same principles to have been at work in the United States as well) was closely intertwined with (changing) social and political approaches to homosexuality. So much so, in fact, that the disease was originally called Gay-related Immunodeficiency Disease.
Looking back upon the history of the disease, many would find fault with the early reaction to the disease. We recognize the unfairness of the close association of the disease with the homosexual community, and to a lesser extent, needle-drug users (and by extension, the poor/minority individuals stereotypically considered inclined to be needle-drug users). However, the next two decades, right until the present day, have not revealed any willingness to divorce the HIV/AIDS stigmas from the homosexual or poor/minority stigma.
Rather, our society may be promoting a perpetuation of the harmful convolution of HIV/AIDS and certain populations. We do so in that we characterize the evolution of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the social views associated with it as connected to the evolution of social views regarding homosexuals (and needle-drug users). Both Dr. Weeks and Dr. Ronald Bayer, in the readings, reinforce this notion. Dr. Bayer makes particular mention of milestones in the history of social and political views relating to homosexuality such as the Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick (imagine if Dr. Bayer had written following Lawrence v. Texas), proving that tracing the history of views pertaining the HIV/AIDS epidemic is contemplated through the lens of changing views on homosexuals.
In my view, it is necessary to separate HIV/AIDS and its stigmas from homosexuality or needle-drug users and their stigmas. HIV/AIDS is, and has always been, a terrible debilitating disease. As a society, we must accept those suffering from the illness with the utmost compassion and do our part to ensure the availability of treatment and education to those afflicted. We must realize that infected individuals do not present a bald threat to public health. There is no acceptable reason that we would look on the predicament of HIV/AIDS with anything less than total empathy.
Approaches to homosexuality, drug use though, are much more nuanced and controversial. Acceptance of homosexuality is neither absolute nor universal and cannot be in a society that is largely defined by religious and moral sensibilities. While we cannot discriminate against homosexual individuals, views that proscribe homosexual behavior are valid. While many push “needle-exchange” programs as progressive and successful—and they surely are—they shirk the glaring illegality (and hence, immorality) of drug use.
Therefore, to fully appreciate and properly approach the HIV/AIDS epidemic we must separate the wrong and harmful stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS from the complex societal views on homosexuality, drug use, and deviation from monogamous behavior.