AIDS Is Not a Metaphor

Flesh & Blood
by David Waggoner

For hundreds of years, many immigrants have come to our shores in search of a better life. A better life might mean a wider choice of economic opportunities, increased access to education, or lifesaving healthcare. So when President Trump reportedly said that Haitians who came to the U.S. by the thousands in 2017 “all have AIDS,” I thought, “Why is that a bad thing?” If immigrants have an AIDS diagnosis, and they are coming to the U.S. for more treatment options, or to escape unbearable stigma in their hometown, then let us open our doors wider. But Trump sought to be disparaging, dividing immigrants into “wanted” (Norway) and “unwanted” (African nations, El Salvador, Haiti). Except he didn’t use the word “unwanted”; he used “sh-thole countries.” The connotation is clear—immigrants of color are like an infectious disease, and inside our borders exists a “clean” white America that we need to protect.

Trump is using “AIDS” as rhetorical shorthand. And if AIDS is being used as a word emptied of meaning (except “bad”), then the Administration is less likely to see the reality of HIV/AIDS, in our country or globally. In order to care for people living with HIV/AIDS or step up prevention, we need to “see” the pandemic for what it is, using the most precise tools at our disposal and the voices of those individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.

On the eve of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (February 7), let’s “see” where we are at. According to CDC preliminary data for 2015, black men, who accounted for thirty-three percent of all HIV diagnoses, and black women, who accounted for eleven percent of all HIV diagnoses, are disproportionately represented when compared to individuals in other racial/ethnic categories. For example, the rate of HIV diagnosis for black men was almost eight times as high as the rate among white men; for black women, the rate of diagnosis was sixteen times as high compared to white women. When it comes to black men, most of the new diagnoses were reported to be among men who have sex with men. If these rates continue, the CDC estimates that roughly one in twenty black men, one in forty-eight black women, and one in two black MSM will be diagnosed HIV-positive.

Current rates and projections for the future can change, and HIV advocates are showing us how they can change. Karamo Brown, in our cover story interview by George M. Johnson, says: “I’m negative, but I have friends from both the gay and heterosexual communities who are HIV-positive. One thing that has always upset me is the fact that people in our community tend to ‘shade’ men who are open about their positive status. In my opinion, we can’t stop HIV from disproportionately affecting Black gay and bisexual men until we stop judging and start supporting those in our community living with the virus.” With the HIV awareness organization he cofounded, 6 in 10, Brown is working to create mental health support and a well-stocked toolbox of self-esteem practices for Black gay and bisexual men and eradicate stigma across communities.

Other advocates featured in this issue address HIV among African-Americans in diverse ways. In a new collection of past writings, Randy Boyd shares with A&U’s Chael Needle his journey as a long-term survivor—of HIV, on-campus racism at USC, and homophobia and sexism within his own family. Boyd knows that sharing insights from his experiences will help others “see” AIDS through both a social and an individual lens. Lynette and Daniel Trawick, a serodifferent couple, are allowing people to “see” HIV through a familial lens. As A&U’s Chip Alfred discovered, they find strength in their big, blended family, and want to show others that unconditional love can surmount any (supposed) barrier.

As we hope to remind, “AIDS” can no longer be easily used as a metaphor. There are too many of us stepping forward as flesh-and-blood examples, sharing the specifics of our struggles and the diversity of our triumphs. There are too many of us who can crack the code.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.