by Bianca Laureano
My last post was a reflection of the many questions and myths I hear from the youth (and sometimes adults) I provide HIV education and prevention in NYC. This post is one where I’d like to discuss a topic I hear almost every time I do a session, especially with youth of Color: HIV was created to eradicate people of Color. I hear this as well from people who identify as queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, and questioning (not so much asexual as this is not yet a sexual orientation they have come to completely understand).
When I hear this statement I know, with every bone in my body, exactly what this young person (or adult) is talking about. I know where that comes from, and how that fear is very much a reality. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that women of Color and women and men with disabilities were forcibly sterilized; researchers in the Tuskegee Experiment ,examining the racial differences of Black and White men infected with Syphilis, did not offer the cure to Black men or their families); and oral birth control pill experiments among Puerto Rican and Haitian women - with these being just the experiments the public knows about.
The experiences and beliefs that people of Color and people who are not heterosexual are hated, devalued, and dehumanized still exists today. Just take a look at some of the campaign marketing for some US presidential hopefuls; and how popular culture all over the world speak and write about us. Only six years ago a study by Oregon State University and Rand Corp. released data showing that almost half of the 500 Black people living in the US surveyed believed HIV was man-made, by the government, 25% believed it was created in a government lab, and 12% believed the CIA created and dispersed the virus. So, when I hear this argument or belief for why and how HIV is a part of our lives, I get it and I respect it as well.
I do not attempt to debunk such beliefs. My role as an educator is to help people critically and analytically think about various topics, usually sex, sexuality, and decreasing the risk of becoming infected with HIV. Thus, I don’t go on about how “conspiracy theories” are wrong, or useless as that is a judgement that would not be helpful for working with the group and may isolate the person who shared and others who share a similar ideology. Instead, I often remind them that however HIV got here, it is here and if we are HIV negative it is our responsibility to remain negative. And if people are living positive, they are powerful and important people in our communities that can help HIV negative people also stay negative.
The last time I heard this was last week. A young person of Color who identified as queer stated that some people believe HIV was created to get rid of us. I told them “you are right!” Because that young person was right; many people believe that and share it with others. I also stated that one way to “give the middle finger to” the people who did create HIV to eradicate us, is if they are negative, to stay HIV negative, to survive. That will be the ultimate revenge. Every time, I’m talking 100% of the time, when I say this the person who shared that perspective agrees with me, as do many of the people present. Reminding youth and people of Color and queer people they can survive is powerful.
This also leads to an important conversation on testing. That getting tested is the only way to know your HIV status.
Now, if I were teaching a entire course of HIV than that is a different amount of time and objectives. I would completely engage with such perspectives, interrogate, deconstruct and analyze them. However, when there is less than one hour to get so much information in, sometimes recognizing that conspiracy theories do exist and ways to connect them to survival and prevention is the best and most “real” way to address the topic. Plus, many of these “conspiracy theories” have yet to be debunked completely because of the histories mentioned above.
If there is time to explain the origins of HIV, I usually stick to the more widely accepted belief that is connected to the consumption of certain types of primates in hunter-gathering communities or those primates blood infecting a hunter. This is a great way to talk about our mucus membranes found in our mouth and throat. I also make some connections to E.coli which students have often heard of, and how important it is to cook meat for a certain amount of time at a certain degree of heat as this helps kill off various forms of bacteria.
Because most of the research on the origins of HIV are centered in Western Africa, and US specific infection centered in Haiti, people of Color are at the center as is colonialism. This is another reason why when hearing these ideas I am not quick to judge or debunk them specifically because they are real for so many people. Colonial legacies alone are real and many of us are still surviving what comes with being colonial subjects, kinship, and offspring.
How do you manage and discuss conspiracy theories about HIV?