The AIDS crisis has shown how preconceptions become deadly

When the epidemic first broke out, even scientists were baffled.

But because of time pressure and the way the journalism profession works, journalists have got to turn out this story, and there was no way for them, or for any of us, to carefully reflect on the social implications of this crisis. The result was they were largely working with unknowns and stereotypes.

What was only a dozen cases involving gay men turned all of our attention to the apparent 'gayness' of the disease. That pattern of guilt-by-association continued for a number of years, turning other marginalized communities such as drug users and blacks and Haitians into the 'primary carriers' of the disease. 'Heterosexual whites' became, in a deadly way, the culturally immunized world. It's a sort of self-protection mechanism. We want to always think of ourselves as not in positions of risks.

Underlining all of that, there's this overwhelming historical tension about how exactly we're going to look at and treat gay people.

Some parents, even some educators, believe in teaching children about the danger of homosexuality. Not only that homosexuals are weird or they're different, but that they're unnatural in a sense that they can't procreate. They violate a whole set of cultural ideas about what properly constitutes a family.

But who gets to define what a proper definition of family is? Who says a non procreative family structure is not a family? Ultimately, who benefits from a narrow definition?

The need to raise these kind of questions and to challenge ideologically loaded ways of perceiving a disease is so important because now AIDS is no longer just a biomedical problem, it's a social crisis, a cultural fallout and a political battlefield which affects everyone.

Now this crisis has permeated all arenas in our world; education, law, medicine, sexuality. As we try to cope with HIV/AIDS, we must learn how to cope with all of these underlying social, cultural and human issues.

Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire
and author of Unstable Frontiers; Technomedicine and the Cultural Politics of 'Curing' AIDS

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