by Hugh Baran, Wed May 31, 2006 at 08:54:00 AM EDT
Cross-posted at Creative Trouble!
As the world focuses attention this week on the 25th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses, there will undoubtedly be a lot made of the fact that, as Nicholas Kristof writes in today's New York Times, "In the early years of AIDS, the virus didn't get attention because the victims were marginalized people: gays, Haitians and hemophiliacs. Then when AIDS did threaten mainstream America, it finally evoked empathy and research dollars."
This typical account of the early years of AIDS is true only to a point. Kristof makes it sound as though the "early populations" (leaving out IV drug users) affected by AIDS were not only distinct from "mainstream America" but that they were tragically overlooked because of their status as "marginalized people." This common reading denies the fact that it was well known early on among scientists and experts that AIDS was already in Africa and was clearly being spread by heterosexual contact in addition to homosexual. Furthermore, it denies the unique way in which AIDS was socially constructed as a gay disease, not just because of a general misunderstanding but because of deliberate efforts by right-wingers to use the disease in a fashion that Simon Watney compared to that of the public spectacle in his essay "The Spectacle of AIDS" to revive Victorian-era conceptions of homosexuals as sick by their very nature.
When we talk about the culture wars in America, the common image is angry people screaming at each other about their beliefs. We rarely think of those wars as having serious casualties. Yet the efforts of leading right-wing culture war figures like Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, Fred Phelps and Jesse Helms to frame AIDS as "nature's revenge against homosexuality" - a perverse illness to match a perverse lifestyle - led to the deaths of many thousands of Americans of AIDS. These people had no reservations about what the government should do to people with AIDS - for since they were all gay to them, their response was basically, "Let the fuckers suffer, die, and burn in hell."
Their actions - helped along by an almost totally silent President Reagan and by other supposedly reasonable and remarkable right-wing luminaries - such as William F. Buckley, who in a 1986 op-ed in the New York Times called for HIV+ gay men to be forcibly branded on the buttocks and talked of a possible need for concentration camps - exposed the right wing's culture war for exactly what it is: an effort to render dead or silent all those whose actions, identities, values and politics do not conform to traditional hierarchies of power.