Black communities and the framing of AIDS

A recurrent theme that I found particularly pertinent throughout Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness is the tremendous influence of issue-framing on community mobilization against the AIDS epidemic. The public and private perception of AIDS as a problem facing only a marginalized and specific subsection of the black community—gay men and injection drug abusers—relegate the disease outside the narrow constraints of what Cohen calls “consensus issues”. A historical “process of stratification and intersection…in which issues are no longer understood as all-encompassing racial issues or experienced by all community members similarly” has inhibited the formation of a more coherent blueprint for black activism around AIDS (Cohen, 13).  Not only has AIDS been framed as a “cross-cutting issue” that affects a particular group of African Americans, the social ostracization of their identity further hindered prospects for community-wide solidarity and organizing.

The very economic and political context of 1980s black America rendered unity increasingly difficult. With the advent of both deindustrialization and suburbanization, African Americans across the country “witnessed the continuing bifurcation of black communities, illustrated most noticeably in the intensified division between an expanding black middle class and expanding numbers of black poor” (91). Compounding this rupture is the persistent invisibility of black gays and lesbians, in particular those who are a part of the urban poor or the working class. Kimberle Crenshaw’s conception of intersectionality can be exceptionally helpful to understanding the construction of AIDS as a singular issue affecting gay men, whose sexuality automatically alienated them from the greater black community.

As a result of the Center for Disease Control’s biased research, AIDS became essentially framed as an issue for gay white men. Subsequently, “African Americans came to see this disease as something they did not need to be concerned about, something completely outside of their communities” (139). This problematic publicity surrounding the epidemic in the 1980s—largely a product of corporate and state irresponsibility—undermined the potential for mobilization of the black community around AIDS on any scale. Even stories about AIDS from “left-oriented publications [were] produced primarily by lesbian and gay publications” (241). The disease became perceived to be outside the realm of the normalized black experience.

The treatment of victims further revealed the deep-seated issues within the framing of AIDS that inhibited broad-scale activism. When Magic Johnson announced his HIV-positive status on national television, the press responded not with an acknowledgment that the disease can be contracted by anyone but rather with rumors about his bisexuality. Even when the media did humanize the illness, the discourse narrowly bestowed the status of rightful victimhood to black women and children. It is in this context that the proposed needle exchange program in New York City came under controversy: “black officials seemed to engage in a calculus of human worth, where the lives of ‘innocent’ children and ‘regular, law-abiding community folk’ were designated as more important and worth saving than the lives of black injection drug users” (344). Such a fallacious framing of AIDS obstructed the unification of the African American activist community more than homophobia or the lack of financial resources ever did.


Going past gay marriage and assimilationist politics

Republican politicians like Senator Rob Portman have announced their support of same-sex marriage in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s hearings on Proposition 8 in California and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Social media has been overtaken by the statuses and tweets of everyday Americans who stand for marriage equality. But serving as foil to this burgeoning optimism about LGBT rights are the critiques from queer-of-color groups that simply extending heteronormative privileges to gays and lesbians do not fundamentally alter the social and economic systems that marginalize those who stand outside the accepted ideals about gender and sexuality. I am particularly struck by a line from a spoken word poem entitled “Queer Rage” published this morning: “Rainbows are just refracted beams of white light.” It was incredibly refreshing to see that there exists a network of radical queer activists who espouse marriage equality as a civil right but recognize also the shortcomings of framing it as a singular issue. A glitter and sparkles LGBT movement that has ignored race and class, forgotten the atrocious violence still being committed against gay and especially trans people of color, and become wholly commercialized cannot speak for all of us.

This schism between the mainstream LGBT organizations and liberals who celebrate marriage equality and queer-of-color activists who speak out against the allure of homonormativity harkens back to Cathy Cohen’s discussion about the radical potential of queer politics. I concede the truths in Cohen’s observation that queer activism has too often cemented the division between gay and straight and divorced itself from a left ideology oriented around systems change. But as I read the torrent of critiques and admonition today from queer activists that deploy a structural analysis of the power dynamics that must be uprooted to really achieve an inclusive liberation, I wonder also if queer activism has become more responsive to its political potential since the 1990s when Cohen wrote her article.


When I consider Don Kulick’s ethnography of Brazilian travestis in this greater context of the oppression levied against gender and sexuality non-conformists, it emerges as evermore apparent that the legal recognition of gay marriage in the United States will go only so far in challenging the popular conceptions and institutions that enable inequality on a global scale. Internalized notions about female inferiority and gender roles underlie so many of the travestis’ problematic relationships with their boyfriends. Inadequate access to and false beliefs about contraception fuel travestis’ disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Status quo assumptions about gender and sex severely limit economic opportunities for travestis outside of prostitution. These concurrent issues must be affirmed and addressed with a socio-cultural understanding of the larger oppressive structures that dictate normative values. The story of the LGBT movement in the U.S. runs along a similar trajectory: tackling marriage equality as a problem in itself accomplishes nothing to liberate queer people from the political and economic institutions that hurt our communities, health, and sense of self.

Boundaries of queerness

The elaborate nexus of oppressions, both internalized and structural, that figure concurrently in Otis Tilson’s life capture the dynamic nature of intersectionality. Iceberg Slim establishes early in the preface that “The dialogue is in the gut idiom of the queer—the black ghetto—the Deep South—the underworld” (13). It becomes clear that homosexual behavior was never the sole characteristic that demarcated Tilly as “queer” but the interplay of poverty and brutality that fenced even his heterosexual family members outside the boundaries of normativity. The backdrop of the 1960s Chicago race riots further frames the narrative not as an individual story of personal tragedy but a chronicle of continual engagement with exclusive social conventions in every realm that possess significant limitations.

Racism does not merely function to entrench the hierarchy of white over black with the former privileged as normative. It additionally engenders internal inferiority complexes and divisions amongst those outside these barriers. The intense mistrust of middle-class blacks on the part of working-class African Americans can only be matched by the outright hostility more financially and socially established blacks display towards the recent migrants from the South. Mama, for instance, feels the need to remind Tilly repeatedly about Dorcas and her family: “A slum fellow like you don’t have a chance with a girl like that. Her father will see to it. If anyone despises poor niggers more than the dirty white folks, it’s so called high class niggers like him” (188). This animosity is reciprocated. Dorcas’s father indeed holds poor African American migrants in deep distrust, ordering Tilly to “Stay away from my daughter…I don’t want her associating with low life cotton picking niggers from Mississippi” (198). These borders within non-normative spaces define Tilly’s experiences. His position, truly at the intersection of various systems of subordination, attests to the full complexity of “queer” struggle and community.

The reality of power and normativity are similarly blurred in Tilly’s encounter and sexual assault at Lovell’s hands. While Lovell also falls outside conventional categories as a physically deformed and violent rapist, it is arguably his cisgendered and heterosexual identity that empowers his atrocious crime. As he terrorizes and rapes Tilly, Lovell roars: “Git them clothes off, freak, and git in that bed before I stomp you into a puddle of yellow shit” (39). The naming of Tilly as “freak” in this context gives incredible insight into the psychological underpinnings that leads Lovell to believe he has such unrestrained access to a homosexual drag queen’s body. Upon reading and re-reading this haunting exchange, I also immediately recall Hortense Spiller’s writing about misnaming, ungendering, and the potentially dehumanizing impact of terminology and discourse. The various ways in which naming is deployed to justify aggression even within extra-normative spaces and communities in Mama Black Widow thus serves as a timely reminder that the boundary between “queer” and “normativity” has never been, nor will ever be, a straight one-stroke line.