Policing and Criminalizing AIDS

AHA Session 289
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 18
Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Jennifer Brier, University of Illinois at Chicago
Jennifer Brier, University of Illinois at Chicago

Session Abstract

From the outset, the AIDS crisis intersected with (increased) policing and criminalizing of sexual actions, minoritized communities, and physical spaces associated with radical politics. Policing took many forms. Public health officials and police created a narrative that justified the shuttering of bathhouses in many cities. Municipal-level workers echoed, articulated, and operationalized an overlaying of the emerging AIDS crisis with the national calls for a war on drugs and religious conservatism to legitimatize over-policing minority communities, mandatory minimums, and three strikes laws that resulted in incarcerating peoples and communities disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. The legal and medical communities occasionally joined to force testing or breach medical confidentiality in the name of public safety or legal ethics. Similarly, criminalization proved multi-faceted and increasingly tied to both AIDS-phobia and re-articulations of pre-existing social biases and oppressions as many states drafted laws literally criminalizing sex with HIV+ people which in turn dovetailed with increased policing and infringements of privacy in myriad ways. These forms of policing and criminalization are in and of themselves fascinating scholarly paths that both reflect and illuminate the various ways in which the state manipulates the sexuality of its citizens, defines the ideal citizen, and constantly re-enforces structural inequalities as opportunities arise.

Despite being faced with these realities, communities impacted by HIV/AIDS and the related policing and criminalization found ways to articulate agency. The political work in response to policing and criminality took many forms but consistently deployed one of two strategies: either exclusionary of particular AIDS narratives and personal experiences in an attempt to gain respectability or embracing of a more radical approach to AIDS activism that centered critical analysis of the epidemic and its raced, classed, and sexual demographics. These political conversations and activism can be in venues ranging from prison cells to ball rooms as communities mobilized to face the medical crisis and combat the political backlash it inspired. Using the efforts of AIDS activists of all stripes and political framings as a lens, historical analysis sheds light far beyond the epidemic and onto neo-liberalism, conservatism, the religious right, as well as the (sometimes radical) response from the left. In short, this research examines the 1980s and the final decades of the twentieth century in new and evocative ways.

This panel unearths the ways in which the policing and criminalization related to AIDS played out and how various communities responded, giving greater clarity to both the lived experience of the AIDS crisis and the larger forces that shaped the 1980s.

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