Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stuff Becca Didn't Know About the History of HIV

So, having been in the Sex Ed field for hella years, I was all like “I know hella about HIV/AIDS.” Well, turns out I knew hella about how HIV spreads and how to prevent getting HIV … but in terms of the history, my knowledge was patchy.

David M. Hall, my professor, did a lecture on the history of HIV today, and because I’m all about getting the information out to the people, I’m going to break down some of the stuff I already knew … and then tell you the shit that I learned.

But no doubt, this is all summarized from his lecture. Gotta give props where the props are due.

What I Did Know
HIV was originally transmitted to humans living of off Chimp meat.

What I Didn’t Know
The reason why folks in Africa were living off chimp meat was because they were fleeing into the jungle for freedom from European colonialists who were making entire villages become laborers in the 1930s. The Europeans wanted resources and would ask men in the village to labor for them. The men would say no. The Europeans would then kidnap children and ask again. When people said no, they’d kill a child and say they’d keep killing until the men worked for them. So the men did. When other villages heard about this, their choice was either to work as a forced laborer (read: slave) or flee into the jungles and survive off of chimp meat.

What I Did Know
Most of the cases of HIV/AIDS in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa because that’s where the Virus began its spread.

What I Didn’t Know
Is the reason why HIV started to spread so widely, was when these villagers who had fled were caught, they were put into the forced labor groups. The European colonizers then protected their (slave) labor force from illness through injections. But guess what, they often used one needle to vaccinate hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. (Apparently, one French vaccination used 6 syringes to vaccinate 80,000 people. WTF, right?) Sharing needles, as we know, spreads HIV.

This fact, alongside the fact that when you put hella dudes together in a forced labor situation, sex workers are going to capitalize. These newly infected dudes would have sex with sex workers, and the cycle of infection would continue.

What I Did Know
When HIV/AIDS came to the states, it started off primarily with gay men.

What I Didn’t Know
That this happened by way of Haiti. Haitians would work in the Congo, where HIV was prevalent, and then roll back to Haiti. Gay Men, who, in the 1950s were discriminated against, couldn’t just be in public and have a good time and be open. So, the rich ones would go to Haiti so they could be openly them. Haiti needed the money and so didn’t care that gay folks would party there. While in Haiti, HIV spread to these gay men, and when they returned to the states, HIV returned with some of them.

What I Also Didn’t Know
Because of discrimination, some gay men in the 1950s were only hired in jobs that were traditionally considered jobs for women. One of those jobs: flight attendants. So, when gay men would fly across the country, they’d have sex with folks in the cities they were visiting, and the virus would also spread that way.

What I Did Know
Some people contracted HIV through blood transfusions back in the day.

What I Didn’t Know
Although the Blood Bank people knew they were potentially infecting people with HIV, they didn’t want to spend money on testing their whole blood supply. After hearing about the possibility, they waited 2 years before they started screening blood. At which point 35,000 Americans and half of all hemophiliacs had been infected with the Virus.

What I Did Know
Ronald Reagan was a conservative president.

What I Didn’t Know
Was that even though in the beginning the CDC thought that HIV only affected gay men … when the Regan administration sent scientists to the Congo to check things out they said, “Uh, hey President Reagan, looks like HIV can be spread to hetero people too.” To which he responded, “No way, brah. I don’t believe you. Find another explanation.” It took him 4 years into the epidemic to say anything to the public about the virus at all, and it was only because privileged non-gay people started to get diagnosed in the country (hemophiliacs, to be specific).

What I Did Know
HIV meds can be way expensive.

What I Didn’t Know
Is that original treatment for HIV (AZT) was discovered on the public dime in the public domain. The patent on the drugs was sold to a pharmaceutical company, and that pharmaceutical company then jacked up the price to $10,000 a year … in the 1980s. (Read: Hella money, fool).

What I Did (Kind Of) Know
The Bush administration rocked a good deal of funding to HIV/AIDS prevention.

What I Didn’t Know
Was that all that happened because Bono convinced Jesse Helms (super conservative dude who blamed HIV on gay people, called it a punishment, etc.) to stop blocking legislation that would help out with HIV/AIDS prevention.

What I Did Know
HIV/AIDS is projected to affect almost 40 Million people worldwide, and about 1 Million people in the United States.

What I Didn’t Know
Is that through a combination of colonialism forcing people into slavery, unsavory medical practices, homophobia, and conservative administrations, HIV has become WAY more of an epidemic than it ever needed to be.

If the European colonizers had never forced Africans into laboring for resources … villagers wouldn’t have been chased into the jungle in order to avoid become slaves. HIV, although it may have spread to a few people, would never have proliferated.

But, what if colonialism and forced labor were inevitable? Had they not vaccinated hundreds to thousands of people with the same needles … HIV never would have spread as widely as it did.

In the US, had gay men’s sexuality just been accepted, they would never have had to turn to another public space to just be themselves, nor would they have been pigeonholed into certain jobs. Had we been accepting of a diversity of sexualities, HIV may not have become an epidemic in the states.

Homophobia also resulted in HIV not being linked to hetero people until 4 years into the epidemic. Because the CDC originally attached HIV to gay identity, when they saw hetero people with the same symptoms … they refused to link them. Had the CDC not been homophobic in the 80s, prevention could have started sooner.

Had Jesse Helms not blocked funding, more could have been done sooner as well.

Becca’s Conclusion

When we blame the HIV epidemic on a certain demographic, or when we reduce the beginning of HIV to sex with monkeys … we’re missing the whole point.

Disregard for the humanity of others caused this epidemic, and hate and intolerance helped it to spread.



  1. Whoa. That's a lot to take in. I didn't know that at all, Becca. It's ncie to see you're still doing your thing with sex and whatnot. Also, over here in the Philippines, I'm spreading the word about safe sex too and people actually listen if I'm serious. At first, people didn't believe me, but then I showed them a few pics from the olympics and from meetings and they started believing me. When it comes to matters such as sex, people always come to me. I feel so helpful.

    Learning this now increases my knowledge.


  2. Thank you for this Rebecca! I have shared this with many of my former coworkers in South Africa. One of the biggest problems there with regard to HIV/AIDS is the stigma, discrimination, and the silence that comes with it. It was so frustrating to work with HIV/AIDS because you are not fighting a disease really, you are fighting peoples' thoughts and reactions to it. Only once we can overcome stigma and discrimination will HIV be history.

    Also, I don't really understand why homophobia exists. It seems as arbitrary to me as fearing and hating someone that's left handed or has red hair. I can understand how racism developed first and foremost as an economic policy and how that spread into general discrimination, but I don't understand how homophobia developed. Thoughts?


  3. damn girl! read it like the gospel! hatred my people!