This coming Sunday, the International AIDS Conference will finally make its return to the United States after a 22 year absence. It is a great occasion and something that HIV/AIDS advocates in America and across the globe can take much pride in. There will be the usual cavalcade of politicians—The Clintons, Laura Bush, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Bill Gates & Sir Elton John, to name a few—and there is sure to be much hand-shaking, baby-kissing, pat-on-the-back goodness for everyone. Yet, there is the omission of President Obama from the speakers lineup, which is especially glaring as the conference isn’t taking place in some far flung land like Austria or South Africa, but about 8 or 9 blocks away from The White House at the Walter E. Carter Convention Center. And, maybe even more importantly, there is the reason why there has been a more than two decade hiatus between our nation playing host to the conference. After all, the First International AIDS Conference was held in Atlanta and 3 of the first 6 took place stateside. America is where AIDS was first identified as a burgeoning epidemic and where Dr. Robert Gallo discovered what is now known as the HIV virus. We have an HIV prevalence rate more than three times that of Western & Central Europe, yet the conference was held in 6 European nations in the 22 years since the last US-held conference in 1990. They even held the IAC in Vancouver and Toronto during that time period. What could have possibly been going on that would cause the International AIDS Community to blackball the stars and stripes like that?
As per usual, profound and prolonged ignorance was at the root of the issue. In 1987, in a fit of alzheimery daftness in-between jelly bean binges, President Reagan decided that the AIDS epidemic needed to be stopped and that the best way to do so was to ban all HIV-positive people from entering the country. I’m fairly certain that Dutch had no idea how HIV was transmitted and, really, who’s to blame him. At this point the Gipper was lucky if he could put his pants on the right way and expecting him to comprehend the spread of a retrovirus is a bit ambitious. Hell, the man created the modern War on Drugs (assist courtesy of Dick Nixon) and I’m pretty sure he thought you injected pot into your arm. But, regardless of whether our 40th president thought you contracted AIDS from unprotected sex or from shaking hands, the man was convinced that People Living With AIDS needed to be kept out of our country. Later that year, world-renowned racist and misanthrope Jesse Helms decided to cross all of his T’s and dot his I’s by adding HIV to the list via what would be known as the Helms amendment. These no-fly bans would last for the next 22 years and, no, the fact that the gap between IAC meetings in the US was 22 years as well is not coincidental.
It was in 1991, only four years after the HIV travel ban, that Magic Johnson held a press conference to tell the world that he was HIV positive. A year earlier, congress enacted the Ryan White Care Act and began what was and still is a massive outpouring of funding for HIV/AIDS care, prevention and research. We discovered the HIV cocktail, which later led to combination drug therapies that can suppress the HIV in someone’s body and enable them to be as healthy as a HIV negative person. And still, while much of the rest of the world is seeing their HIV incidence rates drop, ours have remained level for the past decade. How do you explain it? How is it possible that we have the best medicines and the best doctors and have been traveling the globe telling other nations how to prevent the spread of HIV, yet we can’t stop it ourselves? I believe the HIV travel ban is the epitome of why we have been unable to push back HIV in America.
The thing is, not only was the HIV travel ban a feat of profound ignorance, it was state sponsored ignorance. In what bizarro alternate universe is closing one’s borders a viable solution for containing the spread of infectious disease. There are an estimated 1.2 million People Living With HIV/AIDS in America today, which is multitudes more than most of the countries who import travelers into the US. It’s not like JFK and Dulles Airports are being inundated with packed 767s from Lesotho and Swaziland. Most of our inbound international flights are coming from places like Japan and Britain and Canada who have lower rates of HIV than we do. By extension, importing any amount of foreigners from 1st world countries lowers the percentage of people in the country with living HIV. The only way that quarantining works, and that is more or less what Uncle Ronnie was trying to do, is when there is no contagion present in the outlying areas. There were already hundreds of thousands of PLWHA in the US when the law was passed, so they were in essence containing the epidemic to the United States, the place that they thought they were ridding of the virus. And, even worse than any effect in prevalence that may have been caused by the ban (which is probably negligible) is the intense stigma that it promotes to the general public.
What kind of a message about HIV does it send to the general public when their government won’t let any positive people enter the country? All a policy of that sort can do is stir up fear, like some hate-filled crock pot, until it burbles over into a mess of misinformation and ignorance. It’s the type of policy that begets a national sex education program focused on not having sex. You want to know what public sex education surrounding HIV looks like in our schools? Here’s a brief dramatization:
Sex Ed Teacher: “Who can tell me how HIV is transmitted?”
Male Student 1: “You can spread it by having sex with a bunch of people or, like, doing drugs with needles and stuff.”
Sex Ed Teacher: “That’s right, and how do we prevent HIV from being transmitted?”
Students (in unison): “Be abstinent…”
Sex Ed Teacher: “Well done class. Abstinence is the only 100% effective way to stop the spread of all STIs”
Male Student 2: “But what if we’ve already had sex?”
Sex Ed Teacher: [silence] “Don’t do it again.”
Female Student 1: “My boyfriend told me we don’t need to use a condom if we do it standing up.”
Sex Ed Teacher: “No one is doing anything standing or sitting! We can’t be talking about this in a sexual education class!”
It’s part of a long American tradition that dates back to our repressed Puritanical roots. If I don’t acknowledge it then it can’t be happening. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Let’s make this International AIDS Conference the springboard for a new dialogue about HIV and sex in America. We looked the other way for 22 years and it’s about time we turned around.
The International AIDS Conference is at The Walter E. Carter Convention Center on Mt. Vernon Square in Washington DC from July 22—July 27. You can also come down Sunday afternoon on the 22nd to be a part of the historic Keep The Promise 2012 March on Washington to raise awareness and keep the feet of our nation’s leaders to the fire so they respond to this epidemic with the fervor and passion that it warrants.