When most people read the phrase “AIDS crisis,” they likely envision a period of the 1980s and early 1990s when AIDS was a mysterious and terrifying disease, when gay, trans people and people of color all over the planet were dying of neglect, lack of treatment and little to no public understanding.
When many activists and followers of the HIV prevention movement read the phrase, they don’t just think of the past, but of the present.
The truth is that the crisis never truly went away. Eventually, as treatments emerged, the suffering began to alleviate and deaths were less frequent, AIDS receded from the public eye. However, people still die of untreated AIDS, and most of them are Black and Brown, Indigenous, trans and gender nonconforming, sex workers, people without jobs, without homes, without public platforms, who come and go unseen and unheard. What’s more, the stakes may be higher now than they have been in decades.
It was recently reported that the Trump administration has been reallocating federal funds intended for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program to the same Department of Homeland Security agencies responsible for separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border and detaining any and all migrants they choose, indefinitely and with impunity.
‘Trumpcare makes HIV AIDS again’
The slogan “Trumpcare makes HIV AIDS again” has arisen in response. Its message is true, but it is not just Trump and his cabinet of CEOs that are responsible for the now-heightening crisis.
Simultaneously, Gilead Sciences is holding hostage the patent for PrEP — the most advanced treatment yet for HIV/AIDS — and threatening a price increase of 250 times the manufacturing cost. This tactic is used by corporations to prevent the manufacturing of cheaper alternatives to their product. To Gilead Sciences, it is simply not profitable enough for the lives of HIV patients to be saved; they have to be the ones doing the saving, and doing it only for those who can afford it.
This reprehensible affront to the needs of the suffering cannot entirely be pinned on Gilead, either, for the company is just following the most basic rule of capitalist enterprise: Expand or die.
Thankfully, the HIV prevention struggle persists. It has now reached a critical juncture, at the heart of not only the LGBTQ liberation struggle but also the migrant struggle.
During this year’s LGBTQ Pride season, protests across the country demanded justice for Roxana Hernández, an HIV-positive trans woman from Honduras. Hernández undertook a treacherous journey with the Caravan of Refugees, up through Central America and Mexico, to seek refuge in the United States. She contracted HIV while in Honduras after being sexually assaulted by a gang of men. Hernández stated her reason for seeking asylum in the U.S. quite simply: “They kill trans people in Honduras.”
Tragically, they kill trans people here, too.
Upon reaching the U.S.-Mexico border in May, Hernández applied for asylum with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Subsequently, she was forcibly confined in holding cells called “ice boxes,” where she endured extreme cold, was denied adequate food and water, and had nothing but a concrete bench to sleep on.
These conditions, notably reminiscent of those in Nazi concentration camps and the harshest forms of solitary confinement, exacerbated Hernández’s AIDS symptoms and complications. When she requested medical attention, guards yelled at her and joked about her appearance. After more than a week of diarrhea and vomiting, she was finally admitted to a hospital. She died of complications from AIDS on May 25 after a long and valiant struggle.
The CBP has said that holding cells are only intended to house detainees for 12 hours. Roxana was detained for five days before finally being transferred to a private Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison. HIV prevention and human rights activists agree that it is not only cruel, but medically negligent to hold an HIV-positive person in an “ice box” for any period of time.
To date, no officer of any agency has been indicted in Roxana Hernández’s murder by neglect.
Sixth to die in ICE custody
Hernández was the sixth person to die in ICE custody since October. She was not the first trans woman to suffer such a fate. After Victoria Arellano died of an AIDS-related infection after being refused medication in a men’s im/migrant detention center, her fellow detainees were divided up and relegated to solitary confinement so they could not share her story.
That was in 2007. Why didn’t people shut down the streets for Arellano back then?
It is only recently, due to the spotlight shone on ICE and other Homeland Security agencies by migrant activists due to their practice of family separation, that stories like Hernández’s and Arellano’s are gaining widespread acknowledgment.
However, this doesn’t come as a surprise to those paying attention to the struggle. In June 2015, in a truly iconic move, trans, Latina and migrant activist Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted then-President Barack Obama during a White House dinner on LGBTQ issues to bring attention to the conditions faced by migrants like Arellano being held in DHS detention. She was escorted out to the approval of many attendees, particularly cis gay white men.
This action and its fallout highlighted the vast political divide between the moderate, liberal forces in the LGBTQ movement and the forces advocating for LGBTQ liberation, including the abolition of police, prisons and capitalism itself. Now that criticism of ICE is increasingly “en vogue,” moderate forces are more likely to accept the necessity of raising these issues, but even then still failing to provide real political leadership about them. So a class-based divide remains and the struggle in the streets continues.
These many interrelated cases demonstrate that the only way forward is through building solidarity among the migrant struggle, the LGBTQ struggle and the movement for HIV prevention, and through achieving class consciousness that allows us to see that all these struggles are vital for complete liberation from capitalism and patriarchy. The resolution of this united struggle is socialist revolution.
In socialist Cuba, where trans women hold seats in local government, where current President Miguel Díaz-Canel was an early advocate for furthering LGBTQ rights, and where tremendous medical advances have made Cuba the first country in the world to completely eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV, we have a brilliant example to strive for in our own struggles for liberation.
The history of how LGBTQ liberation was championed in Cuba is documented by the late, great transgender activist Leslie Feinberg in “Rainbow Solidarity: In Defense of Cuba,” a collection of articles from hir column “Lavender and Red” published in this paper.
Let us never forget the battles that we have fought, the lessons that we have learned and the perspective that we have gained. It is because of the nature of capitalism that the suffering of migrants, LGBTQ and HIV-positive people continues. It is up to the revolutionaries of all genders, sexualities and nationalities to unite, act up and fight back.