In 2015, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 ruling that the right to marriage is a fundamental one and effectively eliminated all bans on same-sex marriage in the United States. After more than four decades of struggle and advocacy on the legal front, the premier mission of LGBT activism has been avenged, and queer activists everywhere rejoiced in this ultimate victory. Well, not so much.
While marriage equality is important in its own right, the fight for same-sex marriage has all but obliterated mainstream talk of any other issues faced by LGBT peoples in the United States, especially those that primarily affect low-income people and/or people of color. The most glaring oversight in this ignorance has been the halted conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS and the disease’s overwhelming prevalence among LGBT communities of color. Though the last decade has seen amazing successes and innovations made in the medical technology treating the disease, there were more than 13,000 AIDs-related deaths in 2012 in the United States alone.
By refocusing the priorities of activist energy on eradicating this disease that profoundly affects the health outcomes of people in the LGBT community rather than exerting efforts of assimilation (basically, trying to assert that LGBT people ‘fit into’ the very system that was built to oppress them), LGBT activists would do much more benefit to the people they advocate for.
In order to most effectively switch gears in this activist agenda, three measures need to be taken by LGBT support organizations: focusing on the most at-risk populations, fighting discrimination against HIV/AIDS-positive people and amplifying the message of federal initiatives funding prevention and education programs.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 50,000 people are diagnosed with HIV in the United States every year; of these new diagnoses, 63% are men who have sex with men (MSM). While HIV/AIDS affects people of all sexual orientations, MSM are disproportionately afflicted. There are even further disparities within this population: white MSM were 32% more likely to be aware of their status than their Black counterparts.
This all boils down to differences in gender roles in people of different ethnic backgrounds — Black men are stereotyped as hyper-masculine and aggressive and these assumptions bleed into their communities and social interactions. This means that young MSM living in these communities have little access to education about HIV/AIDS; since the disease is considered a ‘gay disease,’ there is little space for valid discourse surrounding it. Increasing health literacy in these communities with regards to sexually transmitted diseases is the most valuable asset LGBT organizations could provide to young MSM of color.
Thirty-two states have criminal statutes specific to HIV/AIDS-afflicted people, statutes that were primarily born out of historically unreliable understandings of how HIV was (and is) transmitted. While some laws address actually damaging behaviors, like the failure to disclose infection status to sexual partners or needle-sharing partners, these statutes overwhelmingly involve an infected person biting/spitting on someone else (which isn’t even an actual form of HIV/AIDS transmission). Not only is the criminalization of a person’s behaviors based on their infection unjust, these punishments are based on grossly inaccurate assumptions of how HIV/AIDS is transmitted.
This is the area in which LGBT rights organizations might make the most change in the narrative surrounding the disease, as a campaign correcting misconceptions of HIV/AIDS would nicely suit agencies that already aim to dispel misunderstandings of LGBT identities, like NOH8 or the Human Rights Campaign. By advocating for the fair treatment of afflicted peoples and a comprehensive understanding of the disease in the court of law, LGBT support organizations would effect positive change in the HIV/AIDS community.
Last year, President Obama signed an Executive Order that established a national five-year plan regarding HIV/AIDS, promising increased preventative education and wider access to care for target populations through the Affordable Care Act and allocation of funding to highly burdened areas. However, this order, like others in Obama’s HIV Care Continuum Initiative, is not a major talking point in most mainstream LGBT organizations. Marriage equality has dominated the conversation instead.
By publicly endorsing these initiatives, these rights organizations would communicate that, not only is HIV/AIDS still a very real threat in the LGBT community, but that there is federal attention being given to afflicted and at-risk people. Simply showing support in this way would be huge in validating the ongoing fight to eradicate the disease.
Achieving marriage equality is definitely something to celebrate, but activists can’t stop here. HIV/AIDS is still a presence in the LGBT community and it’s still fatal. By increasing advocacy within the community itself, we still stand a chance in winning the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Cheyda Arhamsadr is a fourth-year public health policy major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.