June 02, 2020

Solidarity Sundays #33: “Not My First Pandemic“

“The United States has changed profoundly in the last three months,”  began human rights activist Cleve Jones. We face a national crisis comparable to the Great Depression and World War Two. This time, however, the leadership to meet the challenge is invisible.

Joining the May 31 Solidarity Sundays meet-up online from Northern California, Jones related his experience of the HIV pandemic in the 1980s to highlight similarities with Covid-19 today. First, he explained, there was no “gay virus,” and there is no “Chinese virus” — everyone on the planet is effected by Covid. Second, both diseases revealed inequities in our culture. AIDS began among gay men in coastal cities, then moved swiftly south. In Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, men of color succumbed in higher numbers than white men because they had poor healthcare and weakened immunity. Covid’s pattern:  while 30% of Georgians are African American, they represent 55% of Covid deaths.

Another worrisome parallel:  disinformation campaigns. In the 1980s, a vocal minority of HIV denialists grabbed at conspiracy theories to avoid changing their behavior. Ultimately, treatment, not behavior modification, reduced the AIDS death rate. Today, wearing masks has become a culture war statement; Jones points to this to predict that only development of treatment will vanquish Covid.

Attendees wanted to know whether HIV activism tactics are relevant in today‘s political and health crisis. ACT UP’s mixture of civil disobedience and street theater pressured pharmaceutical companies to develop HIV treatment. Those tactics are “absolutely useful”  today, Jones said. Shutting down airports, filing lawsuits, registering voters, letters to editors, being smart with social media — “they all work.”

Jones concluded on a personal note. “I have felt despair several times.”  He was a queer, suicidal 15-year-old when gay liberation — “learning there were people like me” — saved his life. Activism helped him cope in the dark days after the murder of his friend and mentor, Harvey Milk. And when gay men and Jones himself were dying of AIDS, ACT UP secured medical trials that saved his life. “Now,” he said, “it‘s time to save the life of our country.”  Whatever your gift — connections, skills, time, money — bring it to this struggle to defeat Republicans in November. “And bring joy. We‘re in this struggle for the long haul — you need joy to sustain you.

  • Solidarity Sundays and Democrats Abroad’s LGBTQ Caucus co-hosted the  webinar. Eighty DA members from throughout Europe attended and contributed $1,000 to DA’s Get Out the Vote work. Stay tuned for the recording.
  • America is hurting. Help register the 6 million Americans living abroad to vote in November by phone banking from home. Email:  [email protected]
  • Check out this short BBC video of Cleve‘s monumental “Names“ Quilt: