GLAD Talks AIDS Epidemic/Politics of Invisibility at Forum

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, on Tuesday, April 22, held the second of a planned series of panel discussions that highlight key precedent-setting cases in its 30-year history.

The springboard for Tuesday’s forum, “The AIDS Epidemic and the Politics of Invisibility,” (in which I was panelist), was GLAD’s 1998 win in the Bragdon v. Abbott case before the U.S. Supreme Court, establishing that people with HIV are protected from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 1994, a Bangor, Maine dentist, Randon Bragdon, refused to treat Sidney Abbott’s toothache, once she disclosed she was HIV-positive. Bragdon was the first ADA case ever heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1998 ruled 5-4 in Abbott’s favor. Bennett Klein, GLAD senior attorney and director of GLAD’s AIDS Law Project, argued the case. At the time, it was the second Supreme Court case argued by an openly-gay attorney.

Ten years post-Bragdon v. Abbott,  Kevin Cathcart, Lambda Legal executive director; Douglas Brooks, JRI Health vice president of health services; Jacob Smith Yang, Massachusetts Asian and Pacific Islanders for Health executive director; and I discussed where we, as a community, have come since the case. Klein moderated our panel discussion.

Questions we considered in planning for the discussion were wide-reaching and included: Why were people living with HIV initially invisible to the federal government? How did they make themselves seen and heard? Are people with HIV — gay men, people of color, women — sometimes hidden within their own communities as well?; Have better treatments resulted in a new era of concealment and increased infection rates?

It’s true that prior to the 1996 introduction of protease inhibitors, the AIDS epidemic consumed the LGBTQ movement. In several ways, our attention, energies and resources were not available to pursue other issues. Though our quest for equality and civil rights didn’t end, we were clearly distracted by our need to defend those suffering from discrimination, care for the sick and dying and press our government for a response.

Cathcart pointed out during our discussion that our community was lulled into a false sense of stability and confidence after the introduction of drug cocktails. HIV-positive men and women began living longer. They were no longer visibly sick amongst us. They were, in many ways, made invisible as ways of prolonging and improving their lives became more readily available.

In the Asian community, said Yang, HIV-positive men and women were made invisible because of the focus given to HIV-positive Caucasian, African American and Latino populations along with an Asian reluctance to highlight Asian health issues. Combined, these factors helped downplay the how many Asians were HIV-positive and also kept many from getting tested regularly.

Brooks, who is open about being HIV positive, talked on Tuesday about the importance of family support.
“I refused to be invisible in my family,” he said. “I had to be me in my family.”

I spoke about HIV-positive African American women. I believe the invisibility of my group’s plight has less to do with African-American women’s agency to combat the epidemic than with how the government, African-American men, the Black Church, and the absence of a gendered race analysis makes African-American women invisible to the larger society. I also spoke about one of our sister warriors in Boston, Belynda Dunn, who died of AIDS in March, 2002, at the age of 49. She was a tireless AIDS activist, founder and director of the Who Touched Me Ministry, an initiative to educate black churches in stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS in their communities. She was the wake-up call to the African-American community and the Black Church that HIV/AIDS is not solely a gay disease.

Gay news agencies have recently reported a major increase in new HIV/AIDS infection. However, this increase doesn’t necessarily represent a surge in HIV/AIDS infections. Sources within the CDC advise us that what we are seeing for the first time is more detailed and accurate reporting by state agencies on HIV/AIDS in general. Whatever the facts about the increases the epidemic is far from over and the new population of people living with HIV and AIDS is young, Black and female.

For the past decade while the GLBT community has been focusing on other pressing social justice issues, HIV/AIDS has been silently growing in non-gay and communities of color in dramatic numbers.

GLAD held its first 30th anniversary forum in January. Called “Sex on the Margins: The More Things Change…,” it discussed cultural and legal events in the GLBT community since it’s first case 30 years ago legally challenging the entrapment of gay men in bathroom sex stings at the Boston Public Library where undercover police men enticed  men into conversations leading to their arrests. In response to the community’s outrage and protest to the sting operation, GLAD was founded.

GLAD strikes a delicate balance between the hard fought social issues of today and the public health concerns of HIV/AIDS that lies ahead of us on tomorrow.

And as Cathcart reminded us “together we can end AIDS.”

For more about events planned to commemorate GLAD’s 30th anniversary, go to www.glad.org.

Published April 24, 2008 in New England Blade. 

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