AIDS and Accusation: Thinking through marginalization, stigma, and blame

Who gets blamed for spreading HIV? The answer is often socially marginalized groups, that must fight to retain a voice.

This weeks blog post is Part 2 of Tariro intern Megan’s reflections on some of the larger issues in HIV/AIDS work. The first blog post in the series reviewed the history of AIDS, thirty years into the epidemic. This weeks post is going to look at how various social groups have experienced stigma, through being accused of transmitting HIV/AIDS throughout time.

Accusing the voiceless

Since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in the early 1980’s people have been searching for the origins of the illness. In the process, blame and accusations have been directed towards certain groups, among them gay men, Haitians, Africans, and even chimpanzees.

Looking at these groups, there is a common theme that lies between all of them.  The interesting trait that these groups have in common is that they have all experienced significant discrimination.  For example, when the gay community started claiming visibility and rights with respect to sexual orientation, they were met with opposition and hatred from many different groups of people.  Similarly, Haitians have been marginalized, and many of their cultural practices, including voodoo, have been misunderstood and misrepresented.

When AIDS started becoming visible as a epidemic, I argue that these groups were accused of spreading AIDS in part because they already had a history of marginalization and discrimination, making them less able to respond to the accusations against them.  Cultural, sexual, or racial difference became a primary factor in determining accusations regarding the origins or transmission of HIV.

The example of Haiti

For example, Haitians were initially blamed for causing AIDS through voodoo practices. Even though there had never a been a link between voodoo practices and transmission of illnesses before, medical examiners immediately assumed that voodoo had to in some way connect to HIV.  In the October 1983 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine, for example, physicians affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology related the details of a brief visit to Haiti and wrote, “It seems reasonable to consider voodoo practices a cause of the syndrome.”  But it wasn’t just this one edition delivering this message.  In fact, many physicians and medical boards were sending the message that Haitians voodoo practices could be a link to AIDS, without any evidence.

Looking towards the future

I hope you enjoyed part 2 to the three part blog post. The last part should be up sometime next week and is going to think through how to move on from debates about the origins of the epidemic, and the blame directed toward certain social groups, and toward a future free of the disease.

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