In my last post, I focused on some of the potential challenges that the LGBT community may need to focus on now that the Supreme Court has made same-sex marriage the de facto law of the land. It also focused on the negative response among some older members of the community towards the spontaneous White House protest by Latina transgender activist Jennicet Gutiérrez, which raises troubling questions about the future of the queer community. Will those who most benefit from the privileges of marriage now abandon the pursuit of social justice for those more marginalized, whether because of race, gender identity or socioeconomic status?
I write these words on the first day of the Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA) conference, which is being held this year in Lexington, Kentucky. For the youth that I and my colleagues serve, gaining the right to marry is at best an abstraction and at worst a cruel taunt. For many of them, having a place to live, achieving gainful employment, or simply not being physically harmed or even killed for who they are present far more pressing concerns. We cannot afford to view gaining marriage equality as the culmination of our movement if we want to see young people thriving in our community throughout the 21st century. We still have a lot of work to do as evidenced by the following:
The murder rate of trans women of color is a national disgrace, while the latest data from the National Anti-Violence Project show that, overall, violence against LGBT people disproportionately affects those who are minority, trans, low-income, HIV-positive, and/or teens and young adults. Relying on aggressive policing and hate crimes legislation, however, only further serves the interests of our increasingly militarized, authoritarian state — and it’s useless if it’s the police themselves committing violence. How can we combat and address anti-queer, homophobic and transphobic violence within structural oppressions?
“Religious Freedom” Legislation
Legislative and executive interventions — such as an order signed by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback just last month — have been largely presented by the media as a way to avoid baking same-sex wedding cakes. The opacity of the concept of “sincerely-held religious beliefs,” however, also opens the door to all sorts of discrimination in housing, employment, education, and healthcare. As usual, it’s vulnerable populations on the margins of the LGBT community who will bear the brunt of the backlash.
We seem to have forgotten that the push for same-sex marriage began as a direct response to the horrors of the AIDS crisis. In the past 15 years, the rhetoric around the legal right to marry has focused on lofty abstractions concerning “equality” and “love winning.” However, it’s important — if not imperative — to keep in mind that the initial call for the legal protections afforded by the institution of marriage came in response to real-world oppressions. Life partners of those dying or dead from HIV and AIDS were blocked from visiting their loved ones in the hospital, forcibly evicted from the homes they shared, and often stripped of savings and personal possessions by homophobic family members of their deceased spouses. We owe it both to those who died and those who survived to keep this in our cultural memory.
Access to HIV Meds
According to a report released by the CDC last November, only 30 percent of infected people are currently receiving adequate enough treatment to suppress HIV replication. This, in turn, maintains viral load in the blood at undetectable levels, not only keeping them alive but also reducing the risk to practically zero that they will pass the virus on to others. The cliché of the disease is that it’s now a chronic, manageable condition. This is indeed true if you’re fortunate to have a full-time job with good health benefits or live in a state with a robust ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program). Otherwise, even with Obamacare, many people still find it challenging to pay for their expensive medications.
Criminalization of People with HIV
As the above indicates, HIV has become the madwomen in our collective queer attic, a reality we choose to lock up, lest it spoil the pretty little picture we’re supposed to present to straight society. Unfortunately, there are still too many laws on the books threatening HIV-positive people with literally being locked up if we fail to disclose our status to our sexual partners. Instead of allocating resources to educate at-risk groups about how to reduce their risk of HIV transmission, too many states and municipalities rely on the outmoded “strategy” of criminalizing those with the virus in a misguided scare tactic that they think will somehow magically control its spread.
On July 13, Missouri college wrestler Michael Johnson received a sentence of 30 years in prison for failure to disclose his status to three of his sexual partners, one of whom tested positive for HIV. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” how, when, or by whom anyone has been infected, the state clearly wanted to make an example of him.
Johnson is African-American; the majority of men with whom he had sex were white. His trial was held in a municipality that is 91 percent white. From the beginning, the case was turbocharged by race, as Steven Thrasher brilliantly illustrates in his in-depth Buzzfeed reporting on the case. African-American men who have sex with men (MSMs) accounted for around 20 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in 2010. For young men of color, the numbers are even worse: black MSMs between 13 and 24 (Johnson’s age group) comprise 55 percent of all new infections in their cohort. As a community, we must do better to ensure that men who have sex with men from minority and low-income communities are receiving the sexual health information they need, not criminalizing their sexuality and health status.
And it goes on. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what are some other areas of necessary focus in the years ahead. Please feel free to share in the comments section. It’s time to move our conversation away from the marriage aisle and onto the streets where most of us are actually living.