Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gay Rights, AIDS, and Public Health

 If you're a queer man then you know that the rise of the AIDS epidemic was the moment when we galvanized. If the Stonewall riot of 1969 was our Pearl Harbor, then AIDS was our 9/11. Gay man after gay man died, suddenly but slowly enough to suffer, their bodies literally falling apart one process at a time. If you don't know this and you're a man and you have sex with men, then go here immediately.

And we—or rather, our predecessors—reacted. Groups like ACT-UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis took to the streets and phones to agitate. Recall that this was during Reagan's White House—years of “gay plague” passed before the president said the word “AIDS” in public. The bloc of queer activism which endures to this day—which we have to thank for the recent end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the imminence of national gay marriage—was born of the fact that gay men had a choice: fight, or die. Take your rights, or die. Become recognized, respected, political--or die. 

Not that 2012, three decades after the initiation of AIDS, has seen the erasure of homophobia. The HIV epidemic persists—indeed, it may be on the rise among young gay men because of the effects of new medications on risk-perceptions. Three decades of survivors are still with us, still surviving. Plenty of Americans give money to have us imprisoned or killed en masse,  or—perhaps worse—forced back into the closet. Queer kids still get bullied to death. Queer adults (some groups more than others) still get beaten and raped and killed for who they are or what they're perceived to be. Presidential candidates make opposing our very existence talking points during stump speeches.

BUT! But. But things are better, by any reasonable estimation. Marriage and the military are just two concrete examples of a broader progress we've made. Explicit homophobia is more or less rude in mainstream society, like farting or smoking. Our position as a threatened sub-group has improved tremendously during my lifetime.

What hasn't improved is: poverty. In fact, as the Occupy Wallstreet movement emphasizes, the gap between rich and poor has continued to expand in the past thirty years, following a trend which has held for twice a long. The gap between the medical care the two groups receive has stretched correspondingly: rich heiresses receive plastic surgery on their reality TV shows while ERs around the country function as de facto clinics to hoards of the tired and hungry, charging loan-shark rates for their services. If the position of queer men has improved, that's because we're moving up the ladder of inequality. The country hasn't improved, so much as it's improvedfor us.

What I want to highlight is how this issue of poor-healthcare intersects the issue of gay men's ascent from criminalization to contempt to grudging acceptance. This intersection occurs in two ways. First, there's the practical fact that in a country with fair healthcare, AIDS wouldn't have been nearly as devastating for gay men or anyone else. If our healthcare were modelled aroundreasonable-need and long-term public welfare,  instead of stop-gap emergency care and profit, we wouldn't have needed to wait for years—until a white, hemophiliac child named Ryan White died from AIDS after receiving an infected blood transfusion—for our government and our country to do something about the epidemic. And if we'd had fair healthcare, it's a good bet that HIV wouldn't have been as widespread. In short: if America had had fair healthcare for everyone, then homophobic apathy wouldn't have literally killed thousands of gay men throughout the 80s.

So it’s awesome that we galvanized into a national movement to demand fair treatment and equal rights, in the face of this horrific epidemic and sickening complacency. Awesome, but insufficient. Even though our position has improved, the medical system which casually allowed thousands (by now, millions) to die, the medical system which openly values lives according to dollars and social status, is still in place. Question: if next year some new plague swept through, say, migrant worker populations, or the homeless, or the incarcerated, does it seem plausible that the rest of us might just let them die, until our friends and neighbours began to get infected? Homophobia has decreased since 1981, but America’s willingness to let the poor die is as strong as ever.

This is the second intersection between poverty-healthcare and gay men as a political entity. When we appeal to straight America for fair treatment, our argument is based in a larger view of justice, equality, and human decency. We don’t want to be treated as gays; we want to be treated as human beings. There is, properly speaking, no such thing as gay rights. There are only human rights, and the groups to whom human rights are denied. As a consequence, our movement, our political bloc, can only demand equal protections and dignity for queer people when we demand them for all people. Our movement is only legitimate insofar as it advocates for all people’s dignity.

That is why it is simply not good enough for us to move up the ladder of inequality. We must be committed to equality in general, for all, queer and otherwise, and especially for the poor. And that means fair healthcare.

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