Monday, May 9, 2011

Viral Apartheid: America and its HIV underclass


(The following is the beginnings of the book I am writing in relation to HIV in America, criminalization and issue of blame, responsibility and prevention in American culture.)

When a handful of gay men were identified as suffering from a rare cancer or pneumonia nearly 30 years ago, it was something that only a few in the halls of public health took notice of. It was, after all, just a disease killing queers.

That was 1981. That indifference continued for a year. It continued when the bizarre illness began taking Haitians and intravenous drug users. They were, like queers, disposable people in American culture. They were not worthy of serious attention. No person with the disease struck a cord until researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta discovered cases of what would become known as HIV in blood product users and infants, the alarm bells began ringing.

Even then, it took health officials warning of an impending outbreak in heterosexuals. Reagan's disease warriors wanted to make sure the disease, by then identified as a retrovirus, did not prey on 'normal' citizens. The disease was so new, so fatal and so horrendous in the way it killed that it inspired fear. The reporting, when it was done in those early days, was breathless and terrifying.

America needed to make sure it could protect itself from a fatal sexually transmitted disease. And it was in this era of horror, fear and lack of information that the idea of camps for those infected began to be considered. How serious that consideration was is unknown, as those who advocated the loudest -- namely the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) -- have passed on, or muted their views. But in order to moderate the calls of isolation, America did something no country had ever done before. As a country, our lawmakers made HIV a felony class infection.

In 1987, the President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic -- commonly referred to as the Watkins' Commission -- announced that those infected with the virus had an affirmative duty to disclose that infection to sexual and needle sharing partners. This was not a new idea, as a gathering of those infected with HIV made a similar statement in the 1983 Denver Principles. What was new was the idea the Commission foisted on America that failing to following this "affirmative duty" ought to carry serious punishment.

The idea washed around for some time. And finally, in 1990, with the passage of the Ryan White Care Act, states were required to certify with the federal government that each government had a law to enforce this performance of duty. Within a decade, 34 states drafted and adopted HIV specific criminal laws. These were wide ranging criminal laws -- covering activity which poses no potential of exposure, let alone transmission. In Michigan, the law covered sex toys, but ignored needle sharing. In Missouri, the law included biting. It was later amended to allow for prosecution of HIV positive persons if they were diagnosed with another sexually transmitted infection. In Mississippi, HIV positive women were told they could not have children. On and on the laws went.

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