FLORIDA, August 2, 2012 — The HIV/AIDS crisis has never failed to evoke strong emotions on either end of the political spectrum.
Many on the right see the spread of HIV as rooted in personal irresponsibility at best, and depraved behavior at worst. Many on the left believe that programs such as needle exchanges for illegal drug users can go a long way toward combating the virus.
In either case, highly charged rhetoric often trumps an actual discussion of the matter. This leaves those suffering from HIV and AIDS at an insurmountable loss — not to mention their loved ones. As modern history has all too sadly shown, the interests of these people are easily, if not casually, neglected in favor of pursuing an ideological crusade.
Whether the people pursuing the crusade are politicians, preachers, lobbyists, or activists matters not. The fact is that they treat public health as an accessory to a cause which was established long beforehand.
This sad state of affairs has never been so prevalent as it is in the American deep South. That is due to a myriad of factors, not the least of which have to do with economic depression, the intertwining of fundamentalist religion with political affairs, and strongly negative inter-community relations. When all of these factors combine, a perfect storm develops that severely diminishes the possibility for adequate health care in socially and financially impoverished areas.
According to Lisa Biagiotti, a journalist who recently completed a documentary about HIV in the South’s more insular locales, the problem is worse than many of us would like to admit. Actually, it is so dire that it’s hard even to believe the statistics.
In an opinion article — aptly titled AIDS — the South’s shame — for The Los Angeles Times, Biagiotti notes that 50 percent of all recent HIV infections take place within this region and that most Americans who are HIV-positive live there as well. Thus the fact that the South claims our nation’s greatest death totals from AIDS should not be a surprise. On top of this, the South’s resources are grossly insufficient to bring about much needed changes.
Biagiotti writes that “HIV is a social illness affecting a deeply entrenched underclass.” This underclass can be found in places that “tend to have high rates of incarceration, teen pregnancies and unemployment. Access to healthcare is usually limited if it exists at all.” Especially startling is that younger “black men who have sex with men bear the burden of new infections, with a 60% chance of being infected by age 40.”
Biagiotti has “spent time with and interviewed many black gay men living with HIV in the South, and they tend to tell similar stories. Their families have shamed and shunned them; their churches have condemned them. The schools they attended failed to provide even the most basic sex education.”
This is horrid enough, but upon more through inspection of social attitudes, she found something that I consider to be nothing short of maddening: “The culture, they say, has forced them into hiding. Some marry; some have girlfriends. They try to be invisible in a culture that can accept black men as prisoners, drug dealers, gangsters, adulterers, absent fathers — but not as gay.”
Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction; or at least more dangerous.
Bronwen Lichtenstein, an associate professor at the University of Alabama’s Department of Criminal Justice, sees these trends as being profoundly dangerous. “It’s much deeper than poverty,” she notes. “The Southeast was a colony with slaves, and the region can’t get over its racial history. Things haven’t changed, they’ve just gone underground because the social structure is the same.”
Indeed, if true progress is ever to be made, this social structure will need to undertake more than a few major changes. Schemes such as affirmative action and wealth redistribution will not magically solve everything. As history has shown, they are far more likely to brush demanding problems under the rug and perpetuate toxic political atmospheres.
What, then, might foster a turn for the better?
We might start by trying to change attitudes like the following, which Biagiotti heard from a pastor: “Some say that homosexuality is not a sin. It is. AIDS is God’s curse to a homosexual life.”
Good luck opening a mind that closed, and the tens of millions who are blissfully — remember that quote about ignorance? — in tune with it.
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