Emerging Queer Histories of HIV/AIDS

Solicited by the OAH Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Historians and Histories

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: LGBTQ History and Queer Studies; Medical History; Sexuality


This panel brings together graduate students and
recent doctoral recipients to share their queer historical scholarship about
the HIV/ AIDS Crisis. This interdisciplinary group of scholars analyze the
impact of and responses to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic from a variety of perspectives
including black gay arts and activism, feminist organizing, transnational black
women’s activism and queer legislative assistants. 

Papers Presented

Out of the Silence: Women Protesting the AIDS Epidemic, 1980–2019

Women in the United States have struggled against the AIDS epidemic since its outset. This paper will provide a brief overview of my doctoral research, which examines the role and treatment of women in the US AIDS epidemic, and the central role women with HIV and their allies in the realms of social justice, science, and advocacy have played in the concurrent political debates over abortion, sexual education, and mass incarceration in the United States from the 1980s to the present day. In doing so, I place the AIDS epidemic, and in particular women’s resistance to it, at the centre of US politics, culture and society in the 1980s and 1990s and trace its prominence to the present day.

Presented By
Emma Day, University of Oxford

“Our Poems as Weapons of Survival”: Assotto Saint and the Poetics and Politics of AIDS Writing

This paper examines select works by gay Haitian writer Assotto Saint as an example of the political responses to HIV/AIDS and knowledge production about the epidemic. Born in Les Cayes, Haiti as Francois Lubin in 1957, Saint moved to New York City in 1970 and published fiction writing, essays, and plays that critiqued state violence against Black queer people and documented his experience living with AIDS as a Haitian immigrant. Scholars in anthropology, English, French, and gender and sexuality studies have recovered Saint as a key figure in AIDS activist circles in the U.S. However, it has been acknowledged that Saint’s work has fallen out of popularity since his death in 1994 except in primarily literary venues. As such, historians in particular have yet to fully examine the generative capacity of Saint’s work as a form of knowledge production about HIV/AIDS.

Drawing on histories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and U.S. LGBTQ history, I argue that Saint’s work constitutes a form of AIDS writing that contributed to knowledge production about AIDS during a time of state-sanctioned silence and repression. Saint’s essays offer critical commentary on the state neglect of Black queer people living with AIDS and might suggest a re-reading of dominant narratives regarding the legibility of certain political responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I close read sections of Saint’s essay entitled, “Sacred Life” in which he theorizes the intersections of race, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS in response to the silence surrounding the epidemic.

Presented By
Kevin C. Quin, Cornell University

Locked In: (His)Stories from Black Gay Cultural Renaissance of the 1980s Era

The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance represents a flourishing in media production. However, this production illuminates the structural, cultural, and personal constraints of liberation during this era. Joseph Beam, a Black Gay writer and activist, died in his apartment alone of suicide, overdose, or AIDS complications. While his public activism and writing discusses liberation, it is his private poetry that illuminates many of these constraints. The institutionalized economic, social, political, and medical structural forces imposed on Black Gay men fabricated affective carceral experiences articulated through cultural production. Using an interdisciplinary approach, this paper details the ways in which Black Gay men were "locked into" a social, and literal, death in relation to the AIDS crisis as well as these societal pressures. While scholars have begun to interrogate the cultural production within the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance, not much focus has been placed on the spaces these poetic responses to carcerality are produced. Reflecting on the public versus private production allows scholars to deeply engage and think carcerality beyond the state space.

Presented By
Richard D'Von Daily, Penn State University

The ‘Straight State’ Reconsidered: Gay Policy-makers and the California AIDS Epidemic

In March 1982, David Roberti, the president of the California state senate, hired the IT consultant Stan Hadden to fix his computer system. In the preceding months, Hadden, a veteran gay activist, had grown increasingly concerned about reports of the emerging AIDS epidemic. Halfway into his contract, he brought the epidemic to Roberti’s attention, who immediately hired him as a legislative assistant specialising in AIDS. Hadden was one of a number of California gay activists who transitioned into policy-making roles during the early years of the epidemic. Their stories complicate existing accounts of the AIDS crisis, which often privilege the response of the Reagan Administration and the direct action advocacy of ACT UP. While the federal government ignored the crisis, California legislators responded by passing a flurry of AIDS-related bills, which were often written by gay legislative assistants. This paper will examine how the careers of these gay policy-makers complicates existing literature on both the AIDS epidemic and the broader relationship between sexuality and the state. By the end of the 1980s, Hadden and his colleagues exerted a strong influence over California’s response to AIDS, marking the fragmentation of the ‘straight state’ along regional lines.

Presented By
Stephen Colbrook, University College London

Queer Belonging & HIV-Positive Black Caribbean Women

In the fourth decade of the global pandemic, the politics of race, gender, sexuality and geopolitics continues to inform HIV/AIDS in the lives of multiply marginalized subjects. Yet, as the historiography of HIV/AIDS in the Americas remains primarily centered on the labor of U.S.-based activists and actors, the stories and lives of Black Caribbeans in general, and queer Caribbeans in particular, have been largely left out of narratives of HIV/AIDS research, organizing, and care. Using Jamaica as a case study to explore how race, blackness, and queer sexuality function in historical accounts of the epidemic reveals the bidirectional flows of HIV/AIDS activism in the late 1990s to early 2000s. Through my prolonged engagements with the contemporary experiences of HIV-positive young women using oral historical interviews and feminist ethnography, I illustrate how they helped form feminist and queer counterpublics that contest sexual respectability, class oppression, and colonial legacies. In doing so, my archive responds to Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s poignant question: “What else can black women desire besides what the archive documents?” As young HIV-positive Jamaican women have demonstrated, they desire spaces to be read on their own terms and to claim the radial potential or queer belonging.

Presented By
Jallicia Jolly, Consortium for Faculty Diversity in American Studies & Black Studies, Amherst College

Situated "Elsewhere": How the Politics of Poverty and Place Marginalized Children with AIDS in the United States

The history of how HIV-AIDS affected American children has been largely untold. Though many Americans might associate the way AIDS affected children with the story of Ryan White, the image of pediatric AIDS he embodied did not represent the majority of young people with the disease. Most children with AIDS were black or Latino, under the age of thirteen, were born with HIV, and lived in poor urban environments.Representations of those children, when publicized, offered a significantly different portrait of the epidemic in the United States.

My paper explores an episode in the history of pediatric AIDS when those children gained a heightened degree of national attention from the late 1980s through the early 1990s. This came a time when the nation was focused on certain “crises” of the inner city – the emergence of crack-cocaine, concerns about the “underclass,” and high rates of crime. Closely associated with intravenous (IV) drug use, pediatric AIDS thus became a biological pathology inseparable from the foreign geography of the inner city, places Americans understood to be landscapes of social pathologies. I argue, therefore, that the politics of poverty and the racialization of place determined national responses to pediatric AIDS, transforming children with the disease into a problem of “elsewhere.” While pediatric AIDS gained attention during these years, the child-health inequalities the disease helped reveal were largely overshadowed by other phenomena. By the mid-1990s, pediatric AIDS ultimately became one more entry in the old catalogue of problems thought to be uniquely found in the inner city.

Presented By
Jason M. Chernesky, Univ. of Pennsylvania, History and Sociology of Science

Session Participants

Chair: Jennifer Brier, University of Illinois at Chicago

Chair: Dan Royles

Presenter: Jason M. Chernesky, Univ. of Pennsylvania, History and Sociology of Science

Presenter: Stephen Colbrook, University College London

Presenter: Richard D'Von Daily, Penn State University

Presenter: Emma Day, University of Oxford

Presenter: Jallicia Jolly, Consortium for Faculty Diversity in American Studies & Black Studies, Amherst College

Presenter: Kevin C. Quin, Cornell University