In light of this year’s shift in presidential regimes and that shift’s potential effects on healthcare, a panel to discuss the cultural and historical ramifications of HIV/AIDS, as well as the current state of the virus, was held last Thursday. This event was hosted by Pride and cosponsored by HeadStrong: Student Advocates for Mental Health, United Campus Ministry at the University of Tulsa and University of Tulsa Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Panelists included Dr. Jan Wilson, history and WGS professor at the University of Tulsa; Samantha Young, clinic and outreach specialist at Hope Testing; Alyssia Hurt, care coordinator at Tulsa Cares; and Kate Neary, CEO of Tulsa Cares.
The forum first addressed the history of the virus, elaborated on by Wilson, who said “HIV originated as early as the beginning of the 20th century and spread as populations became more urban, though it did not have much recognized presence until the 1980s.” Because it originally seemed to spread most quickly among gay men, AIDS “was considered a ‘gay’ disease … and the general population didn’t see it as their problem,” noted Wilson.
She went on to say that “at the time, people were dropping in the streets and it seemed like the government just didn’t care … the only reason there was access to information about the disease in those early years at all was due to the tremendous activism of grassroots groups.” President Reagan didn’t even mention the word AIDS until 1986 and, when he finally did, “he focused on the ‘innocent victims’ of blood transfusions and affected children rather than on those who had contracted the disease due to what he perceived as ‘immoral actions,’” continued Wilson.
The panel quickly moved on to the cultural ramifications of the AIDS crisis when Neary argued that “stereotypes around HIV have dominated the conversation.” Young furthered that point when she pointed out that “we use the word ‘clean’ to say we don’t have diseases, which is steeped in stigma … people with diseases aren’t dirty.” Hurt said that there is a “ridiculous fear of the virus, even today, when people are uneducated about it.” Though the stereotypes surrounding the virus are completely unfounded, Neary noted that “there are biological and sociological issues that can put certain groups more at risk for HIV, which is absolutely heartbreaking because absolutely anyone can contract it … it all depends on access to information and prevention resources, not a specific demographic.”
The discussion then moved onto the current state of HIV/AIDS in the world and specifically within Oklahoma. “AIDS is now considered a chronic illness rather than a terminal illness, which is a big step forward,” said Hurt. Treatment as prevention, which refers to the fact that when HIV is treated adequately, the odds of transmission are reduced to almost zero, “has made a huge impact on a global scale,” said Young. Unfortunately, “it’s particularly disconcerting that more conservative states defund and are in denial of prevention and education efforts,” said Neary.
Wilson, in consideration of the new political arrangement, agreed by stating: “the direction I feel we’re moving is catastrophic.” Speaking about Oklahoma in particular, Neary commented that “we all know this state is a little slow in accepting what people actually do in their lives … we’re second in the nation for teen pregnancy … and in some schools I’m not even allowed to say the word condom, which is insane.” Hurt pointed out that clearly the abstinence-based education isn’t working to prevent teenagers from contracting STIs.
At the conclusion of the panel, Young urged the audience to speak up and make a difference. “Talk about sex … make it less uncomfortable … it’s completely normal and it should be normal.” Neary ended the panel on an uplifting note, saying that “even in a place like Oklahoma, where it’s easy to become frustrated, we’ve come an incredibly long way.”