- The Stories of AIDS
The earliest stories about AIDS labeled it a gay disease. Conservative Christians inside and outside government argued that AIDS represented “God’s wrath” on sinful homosexuals. This logic and the more widely shared homophobia it drew on allowed much of US society to ignore AIDS. The perceived queerness of the victims delayed both research and prevention efforts, putting hundreds of thousands of Americans at unnecessary risk. As genetic research on the virus now suggests, the gay epidemic and the epidemic in communities of color developed simultaneously in America’s big cities in the 1970s and, of course, [End Page 917] overlapped. However, the historical association of gay identity with whiteness inaccurately raced the epidemic, implying that only white gay identified men would be at risk. The stories told about HIV/AIDS and gayness when it first emerged in 1981 convinced scientists, journalists, politicians, and ordinary citizens that people of color need not worry about AIDS. Pouring gasoline on a raging fire, the federal government’s war on drugs, and the mass incarceration of Black and Latino men it produced, accelerated the epidemic.
Now an epidemic of poverty and race as well as sexuality, AIDS has become an intractable problem in poor communities of color, particularly in the South. Fifty percent of Black men who have sex with men and 25 percent of Latino men who have sex with men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. The risk for the nation as a whole hovers at one percent.1 Despite the fact that African Americans make up only twelve percent of the population, in 2015 African Americans accounted for 61 percent of HIV/AIDS diagnoses among women.2 Eight out of the ten states that share the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of new infections are in the South.3 Had we seen the cause of AIDS as a virus and not debased queerness, this might not have happened. The story of AIDS as a gay disease changed the course of the epidemic, shaping it to run in the channels carved by racism, sexism, and the inequities of poverty that form the central core American history.
This review evaluates the contributions of six new books on the history of AIDS in the United States. Tackling the epidemic through different lenses, they provide important new analyses of the epidemic and its trajectory as they trace the place of HIV/AIDS in late twentieth-century histories of religion, labor, activism, race, and sexuality. I begin by discussing Anthony Petro’s After the Wrath of God, which details the reactions of conservative Christians to the epidemic. Of these new texts, Petro’s work provides the clearest sketch of the story of AIDS as a gay disease and ways that association shaped public reactions and policy. I then turn to two monographs that deal with AIDS in the course of their discussions of labor and activism. Phil Tiemeyer’s Plane Queer provides a history of the queering of male flight attendants in the twentieth century. In Mobilizing New York Tamar Carroll analyzes community activism in New York City from the early 1960s through the late 1990s. The remaining books address the complex interactions between race...