HIV/AIDS and the Earth Crisis

I’ve been planning on writing this post for a while, but it’s a massive area of interwoven threads, so I’ll just start by saying that this isn’t intended to neatly tie up all the connections between HIV/AIDS and the Earth Crisis, it’s meant as a beginning, a way of starting to track what I am learning about the relationship between viral pandemics, the Climate/Ecological Emergency, and climate justice, through the lens of the experiences of LGBTQi+ people.

This morning I dropped my son off at school and then took the dog for a walk on the way back home. After we’d been on our walk and I’d cleared my head, I got back in the car and turned on the radio.

Pewsey Downs

It was Radio 4 and Start the Week was half way through, with Chris van Tulleken, infectious diseases doctor and presenter, describing how researchers had now pinpointed the time and place that HIV jumped from chimpanzees to humans.

Van Tulleken goes into more depth in ‘The Jump: HIV’, one of three episodes in the series, which explores the point at which viruses jumped from animals to humans, and what led up to/caused that to happen, including Coronavirus. With HIV, enslaved soldiers in Cameroon in the First World War were forced to kill wild animals for food with guns, and the blood from an infected chimp had entered the body of one of the soldiers.

River Body Drawing

In terms of Coronavirus, there has been increased discussion over the last year or so, about the origins of the current pandemic, and its relationship with habitat destruction, which brings humans into closer contact to wild animals. Climate Museum UK founding director Bridget McKenzie has been gathering such material together through contemporary collecting project ‘The Pandemic and the Earth Crisis’, which includes this quote from Jonathan Foley:

“Countless reports have warned us during the last thirty years…that changing environmental conditions were contributing to increasing disease threats. Numerous studies highlighted how infectious diseases could arise from deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, wildlife exploitation, the bushmeat and traditional medicine trade, confined animal agriculture, and antibiotic misuse.”

Jonathan Foley, After the Storm

Ice and Algae

One thing that Van Tulleken is keen to point out in ‘The Jump: HIV’ is that indigenous people have been hunting wild animals for a very long time, using sustainable methods, with no ill effects. In this case, during WW1, allied forces invaded Cameroon (then a German colony) and ordered starving Congolese soldiers to go into the jungle to hunt animals for meat. To put it simply, the jump was enabled by the move from small numbers of local Cameroonian people hunting enough animals for their own needs, and not killing chimpanzees, to thousands of armed men coming into the area from outside, and killing chimpanzees and other wildlife with firearms.

Taking a big leap forwards now to the 1970s and 80s, and the HIV virus was causing men from the gay community in the US and then Europe to become ill and die. Because the new disease was seen as a ‘gay plague’ or a ‘gay cancer’, the Reagan administration in the US didn’t see a reason to take the immediate action that people desperately needed, whilst in the UK Margaret Thatcher’s government were wary of being associated with the disease or the ‘immorality’ of gay sex. Thatcher worried that educating young people about safe gay sexual practices would encourage them the try them out and somehow become gay:

‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay…’

As her press secretary Norman Fowler recalled, there was a reticence to including information on sexual practices that were unsafe in literature on HIV/AIDS because of this:

‘“Her concern was – it’s always seemed to me a bit odd – that we were teaching people, telling people things about which they didn’t know – the implication being that, once they knew it, then they would go out and experiment.”

So what has this all got to do with Queer River? Alongside a physical exploration of rivers and their futures, and the value of walking with a river as a model of ‘becoming with’ the river or sympoeisis, one of the key strands of this research project is Climate Justice and the experiences of LGBTQi+ people.

‘Climate justice” is a term, and more than that a movement, that acknowledges climate change can have differing social, economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations. Advocates for climate justice are striving to have these inequities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.’

What is Climate Justice? – Yale Climate Connections

When the AIDS crisis hit the US, and gay men were the first to be affected, the response was slow because it didn’t appear to affect the majority, or those in power. Later, when it came to climate breakdown, the countries of the Global North (although the highest polluters) seemed to get off lightest, with the majority of extreme weather events affecting the Global South, and as with the AIDS crisis, the governments of countries such as US and the UK have been slow to act.

Exploring Symbiosis

As the effects of climate breakdown builds and starts to be felt in different ways around the world, those that are already vulnerable because of social inequalities will face/are facing increased hardship and violence. Although in this particular project I’m particularly looking at LGBTQi+ people, the effects are born by a range of groups, as the piece in Yale Climate Connections explains:

‘Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, older or very young people, women – all can be more susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts like raging storms and floods, increasing wildfire, severe heat, poor air quality, access to food and water…’.

To use a simple example, a trans climate migrant will face increased danger, because of transphobia and the higher levels of violence that trans people, especially trans people of colour, experience, as well as the physical danger of having to leave their home country. A young Jamaican queer person may well end up living in the sewers of Kingston because of the laws and attitudes of that country. With increased extreme weather events such as cyclones, their vulnerability to the effects of climate breakdown are then also increased.

Boats and Bodies Drawing

So what can we do about this, and what can we learn from LGBTQi+ people themselves? In Climate Stew Episode 16 – A Queer Response to Climate Change, the podcast explores how we can learn from the AIDS crisis to inform our response to the climate (earth) crisis, and how organisations such as ACT UP were created because ‘ the (gay) community had to educate themselves and look after each other’ because no one in power was going to:

(ACT UP) was founded in March 1987 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in Manhattan, New York, in response to what was seen as the U.S. government’s lack of action on the growing number of deaths from HIV infection and AIDS. By 1987 AIDS had killed almost 60,000 people worldwide, and more than 40,000 were HIV-positive in the United States alone.

Through constant public protests, open forums, and information sharing, ACT UP was able to help reverse these misconceptions and stereotypes and bring attention to the inadequacies of the U.S. government’s treatment of people with AIDS.’

The Climate Stew podcast goes on to explore how an ‘ACT UP For the Climate’ organisation might work in the future, including the adoption of the ACT UP campaign slogan SILENCE = DEATH.

In another podcast, this time from the Our Climate Voices site, five queer and trans climate justice organisers come together to discuss how the connections between trans and queer liberation intersect with issues of climate justice:

‘If our analysis isn’t intersectional, then the solutions won’t be either… climate change is a symptom of not taking care… of the climate and of ourselves… the global climate crisis is made up of multiple systems of repression…’

As with my own explorations of the value of Queer perspectives on living well with the land, (see A Queer Path to Wellbeing), the contributors to this podcast explore the value of the viewpoint that their sexuality/gender identity and exclusion from mainstream society has provided them, as they seek connection and understanding beyond binaried divisions ‘…because we live outside the boxes, we care for each other in different ways.’

Collecting Alder Cones for Ink

As I said at the beginning, its a big subject, and I’m learning as I go along, but at the heart of all this I understand the need to decolonise systems in order to see each other clearly, and to understand the value that our different viewpoints and voices can bring (on a smaller scale, my walks with others along rivers provide an opportunity for an exchange perspectives and experiences, including non-human as well as human voices).

The AIDS crisis is relevant because it was itself caused by colonial and extractivist practices, and its effects were exacerbated by the prejudices of western society towards a particular group or groups. It is a valuable lesson because it can teach us the value of caring for each other in times of crisis, and the impact of denying care to another because of difference. As many of the contributors to the articles and podcasts that I have quoted here have said, LGBTQi+ people have faced existential threats before, (as have people of colour and disabled people), and we bring skills and ways of seeing and being with the world that are of benefit to all.

‘Even in the moments when we’re in pain, when we’re uncomfortable, when the task ahead feels overwhelming, and we feel defeated by the sheer scope of everything that’s wrong in the world, we don’t have to give up on life or on humanity. Queer and trans disabled people know that, because that’s how we live. At this moment of climate chaos, we’re saying: Welcome to our world. We have some things to teach you if you’ll listen, so that we can all survive.’

To Survive Climate Catastrophe, Look to Queer and Disabled Folks

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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