Self-Reflect and Connect
What AIDS Activists Have Taught Me About Anti-Vaxxers
by Chael Needle

In these COVID times, phrases like “medical freedom” and “my body, my choice” have been appropriated by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. They have claimed to take their cue from people who have historically sought health justice and the right to bodily autonomy. And yet a striking difference exists between vaccine naysayers and, say, women seeking to establish reproductive justice for themselves and secure safe abortions or people living with HIV who cannot access treatment for fear of being shamed within and sometimes cast out of their communities—the vaccine naysayers have not been oppressed. They have not been persecuted. They have not suffered discrimination. They are not victims in any meaningful sense of the word.

Now, I am not talking about those who have chosen not to take the vaccine after critically thinking about it nor those who have a long-established mistrust of the medical community. I am not even talking about those who have been misled by disinformation.

I am talking about those who equate not taking the vaccine with some political stance. It’s a position that just doesn’t hold water. They have been given a jab at improved health outcomes and they have misguidedly answered, “Give me freedom or give me death.” The problem is that their freedom is not at stake—everyone’s freedom is. That is, our freedom to live.

“Freedom” is a rather malleable concept in the mouths of anti-COVID-vaxxers. Look at what the newly signed New Hampshire “medical freedom” law states: “Every person has the natural, essential, and inherent right to bodily integrity, free from any threat or compulsion by government to accept an immunization. Accordingly, no person may be compelled to receive an immunization for COVID-19 in order to secure, receive, or access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service from the state of New Hampshire, or any political subdivision thereof, including but not limited to counties, cities, towns, precincts, water districts, school districts, school administrative units, or quasi-public entities.” Yet the law does not supplant that state’s law that students are required to have seven (non-COVID) vaccinations to attend school and does not apply to mandates at nursing homes, government-run psychiatric hospitals nor other medical sites, nor prisons….

So, “bodily integrity” is restricted as a rallying cry. And the law is reacting to a mandate that does not exist—it is pre-emptive. Protecting rights that are already protected is hardly the impetus for a liberation movement. Anti-COVID-vaxxers exist in a silo and that silo is an echo chamber.

Beyond the utter lack of communal responsibility, what renders their claim to oppression particularly hollow are at least two telling signs. One, they are not self-reflective about their position. Two, they do not connect their cause with other causes.

What a contrast with other movements! Consider these examples of self-reflection and connection culled from the pages of A&U.

Leslie L. Smith’s December 2017 Second Acts column titled “From Walls to Spectrums” goes to great lengths to be self-reflective about his own relationship to his political stance: “When AIDS was taking people from us, we hit the bars in mass to spread the word. We clogged the streets as often as we could. This is not different than Black Lives Matter. Such groups are our neighbors and our natural allies. Yet I struggle to find ways to help causes like Black Lives Matter beyond posts on my Facebook wall. In spite of the fact that both meth and politics are undermining the strength of our communities, we remain unable to see each other as allies.”

Here is a great example of linking causes together from Corey Saucier’s August 2016 Brave New World: “Black Lives Matter just as much as queer bodies matter——just as much as gay white male lives matter, because all lives matter!! And if All Lives Matter then Black Lives Matter too! Thirty years after ACT UP I now have pills of all shapes and sizes to control my HIV. I will not die of a complication from AIDS (knock on wood), but as a Black man living in this country, every time I leave my apartment there is a very real risk that I will not return home. Racism is the deadliest disease that I struggle with today. The power systems of oppression, and white supremacy and rampant ambivalence to the plight of black bodies is the plague now killing my brothers and sisters. And it is all I can think about: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!!”

In an interview published in December 2012, Ntare Mwine, actor and playwright, told Arts Editor Alina Oswald why he wrote A Missionary Position and highlighted the issue of LGBTers as a straight man: “When you are in crisis, you feel you are the only one in the world. And part of human condition is to connect with others and to find that there are others who are or have been through the same crisis or are sympathetic and provide some sort of support. That’s what humanity is, [helping people] pull from one crisis to another.

“That’s why some are saying that if you are not part of [the] solution, you are part of the problem. And that’s what made me create this piece, A Missionary Position, because I was known as an artist from Uganda and…I felt like if I wasn’t doing something or saying something then I was somehow part of the problem, endorsing the hatred put out there. So I really felt compelled to be part of the solution and share these stories of human condition from the LGBT community.”

Smith, Saucier and Mwine model self-reflection and connection. These traits are hallmarks of fighting oppression, so please don’t be confused by the crocodile tears of anti-COVID-vaxxers. They are crying, but not for freedom.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. He writes fiction and poetry when not editing. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.