Elevate Difference

Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis

From the early appearance of AIDS as deviant in conservative America in the early 1980s to a full blown global battle in the 2000s, Infectious Ideas charts the activism behind the disease and how it never once wasn’t a political problem. What readers will learn with this book is that knowledge of the disease evolved alongside activist work. The origin, treatment, and likely victims of AIDS were all unknown in the early ‘80s when gay men and Haitian immigrants began to contract HIV. As a result societal scapegoating occurred and the government all but ignored the problem. Despite this, Brier shows how gay men unified to change habits, start dialogues about safe sex, and change public health policy.

With little or no experience in the health field, many early activist groups looked to the gay liberation movement of the 1970s for inspiration. As a result, racial and class discrepancies appeared as activist researchers began to realize that the highest at-risk groups were poor men of color who didn’t necessarily identify with the gay and lesbian community. San Fransisco activists worked to overcome what Brier calls “imperialism of expertise” by changing their campaigns to appeal to Latino and Black communities. Altering their way of thinking of how AIDS affects people proved vital for the moment and future efforts of global activists.

While modifying their approaches, American activists were also fighting another battle. Until the late 1980s they were essentially doing what the federal government should have been doing: informing people, promoting healthy prevention habits and working towards a treatment. However, ideological differences with the Reagan administration kept them from gaining governmental support. Instead of listening to activists with four years experience fighting the disease, the government was persuaded by internal politicians who didn’t condone condoms but rather (shockingly) chastity, fidelity and sex within marriage.

Brier positively notes that the lack of governmental support allowed for other groups to grow in more innovative arenas. She credits the Ford Foundation with raising awareness that AIDS was not simply a disease affecting gay and immigrants populations, but one that affected impoverished women in developing countries. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Ford Foundation focused on efforts in Brazil, Haiti, Thailand and Africa. They maintained a clear mission to “make woman’s rights human rights”. Three of the four countries that received the most funding saw significant drops in the number of new cases of AIDS.

The foundation's work strengthened the relationship between the Northern, developed world and the Southern, impoverished one. It also showed that attention to women’s rights, fighting poverty, and facing health issues overall is the most effective approach to prevent the spread of AIDS. As research continued to find medication to treat the disease, activists in the United States began to fight large pharmaceutical companies for affordable access to treatment, most notably through the work of ACT UP. Eventually disbanding due to internal problems, the group had five short but potent years which completely changed the U.S. response to drug testing and availability of medication.

Brier provides a unique account of the initial social response to AIDS in the 1980s and how it often preceded any political answers—a trend that continued into the early 1990s and today. Her book shows how we have arrived to where we are today in the fight against AIDS and what we can learn from the battles of the past.

Written by: Sara Custer, February 9th 2010