Guest Opinion: The commercialism of AIDS

  • by Cyd Nova
  • Wednesday December 7, 2011
Share this Post:

AIDS activists have historically been a cohesive bunch: able to work together on similar goals, through a variety of tactics, despite varying socio-economic, race, and gender backgrounds. Granted, there have been some explosive differences; particularly in San Francisco. One of the more volatile situations to come to mind involves ACT UP/SF throwing the contents of a cat litter box at former San Francisco AIDS Foundation head Pat Christen. However; when it comes down to it, we have been supportive of each other because we need to be. Being HIV-positive is still criminalized and vilified, and poz people are still outlaws in our society.

We are in a unique time now, where it's finally become concrete: AIDS is officially big business. It became this way through a long process, spanning the past 30 years. During this time the pharmaceutical companies have always been doing what they do best; squeezing out every last dollar possible, always two steps away from being liable to an extortion charge. The high cost of medications drives everything around big pharma, reinforcing a structure that focuses on the ability to accumulate large sums of money. We see this in AIDS culture and discourse: H and M fashion for AIDS clothing line, giant billboards with fear-based messaging, and multi-million dollar organizations whose direct services are derailed through the bureaucracy of chasing funding dollars.

It's hard to complain about the excess when you know about the history. Years went by where the only governmental intervention amounted to the distribution of a poster asserting: "DON'T ASK FOR AIDS; DON'T GET IT." Resource wise, we have vacillated between a feast or famine state (mostly famine), since people first came together to demand government accountability in the AIDS crisis. In the HIV/AIDS world we are still in a crisis mentality, where any money is "good" money – don't ask where it came from. PEPFAR (the U.S. governmental organization that provides international funds earmarked for AIDS services) has a policy of denying funding to organizations that support sex worker rights. While many AIDS programs strongly disagree with this policy, and other similar exclusionary clauses, they comply because they are starved for cash.

Public AIDS activism has been replaced by AIDS consumerism. The face of AIDS organizing has shifted from grassroots community outreach, to one of business marketing, clothing lines, and $1,000 memorial bricks; all of which are targeted toward a particular class bracket. This creates an illusion that people in the U.S. living with HIV are spoiled for resources, that AIDS exists only as a memory, and that only Third World communities suffer from lack of services.

The reality is that the AIDS crisis still exists. At one point, medication and treatment options were a scarcity for all poz people, but with protease inhibitors coming onto the market in 1996 – economically advantaged people secured the opportunity to take their meds and be quiet; which is heavily reinforced by the social pressure of continuing AIDSphobia. But for the homeless, people living with mental illness, the incarcerated, trans women who are unable to access competent care, and the over 9,000 people on the national AIDS Drugs Assistance Program waiting list, the experience of living with HIV/AIDS looks the same as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, minus the community support.

On World AIDS Day, in San Francisco, there were three events. A Castro merchant public health campaign, a film screening, and "A Light in the Grove," (an AIDS gala where tickets started at $175 each, $500 for VIP access.) Could the late performance artist David Wojnarowicz have ever imagined this future? No anger, no protests, no fight left. Public commemoration available only for those with disposable incomes, where only the wealthy are allowed to mourn. [There was also a free event at the National AIDS Memorial Grove.]

Radical AIDS activism in San Francisco has been at a standstill for some time, the territory of a few hardworking people. The stranglehold of the budget keeps most community organizations busy just grappling to keep their doors open, affording no opportunities to challenge the institutions that fund them. This is the situation: HIV organizations are, vastly, no longer run by poz people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that dropped community building and anti-stigma work, in favor of a "test and treat" model, now guide HIV prevention services. And, the Circle of Friends within the AIDS grove is sponsored by Wells Fargo, which also happens to be a major investor in prisons; a predominant source of HIV transmissions in this country.

World AIDS Day is a time for us to honor our own: the people who locked themselves to the old fed building in the ARC Vigil. The activists who lay down in the streets, took over churches demanding that homophobic archbishops stand down, and who devoted their lives to fighting for the rights and recognition of poz people. We still have so much to fight for: Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) has introduced three bills supporting decriminalization of HIV transmission, access to condoms in prison, and an end to abstinence-only education. We must fight for the passage of those bills, and for the availability of generic HIV meds in the U.S. and abroad. And that's only a step; there are many more battles to be won before we can rest.

There is a place for exclusive fundraising events, but at a time where there are up to 2,500 HIV-positive homeless people living in San Francisco, it is unconscionable that we have nothing else. With the nationwide Occupy movement, people everywhere are standing up against big corporations, utilizing ACT UP chants, demanding change: for all those who care about HIV, this is our moment!

For next year's World AIDS Day we recommit to a radical voice. Forget about marketing tactics, AIDS soirees, and public health billboards. Remember that there is still a lot to fight for. We have a rich history to commemorate, but rather than just memorializing it, we need to actively engage with that history; to draw wisdom from mistakes, and inspiration from past victories. We need a radical change in tactics before we can even hope to change a culture; that culture which currently perpetuates the spread of HIV through silence, isolation, issues of access and class, fear campaigns, misinformation, and pharma-corporation driven funding policies. In the battle for access, education, and community, this is a call for reinforcements: let's take back our hijacked community, and turn the current AIDS paradigm into one that supports poz folks beyond just medicating them.

Homonomixxx is a metallic queer contingency that seeks to resist all forms of oppression. We are interested in creating queer visibility at demonstrations, anti-racist work, unions, community organizing, self-care, transformative justice work, by bringing a feminist, creative lens to that work and bangin' dance moves.