Steven Thrasher Centers the Roles of Race and Media in the Criminalization of HIV/AIDS

Steven Thrasher, ISGMH faculty member and the Daniel H. Renberg chair of social justice in reporting at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, presented on “Infectious Blackness: Race, Media, and the Criminalization of HIV/AIDS” on November 14 as part of ISGMH’s Current Issues in LGBTQ Health lecture series.

Thrasher’s lecture unpacked the racist and xenophobic roots of HIV/AIDS criminalization in the United States, delving specifically into the legal case of Michael Johnson, a Black man who was convicted to 30 years in prison for exposing sexual partners to HIV in 2015. Throughout his lecture, Thrasher emphasized the fact that HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects Black Americans today despite the popular “end of AIDS” myth perpetuated by U.S. media, and used the term “Infectious Blackness” to describe this heightened and racialized stigma often tied to HIV/AIDS in both larger society and gay culture.

Utilizing ethnography, media analysis, and archival research, the lecture theorized how Blackness and HIV/AIDS are criminalized and policed in American media. Thrasher highlighted how three central axes of HIV/AIDS (Blackness and whiteness, national borders and individual body borders, and international war and domestic policing) relate to the legal case at the center of “Infectious Blackness.” Thrasher’s lecture drew upon his five years of coverage of the Johnson case for BuzzFeed News, pairing it with his firsthand reporting on the killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson for The Guardian. In 2013, a Black college student named Michael Johnson was arrested in St. Charles, Missouri, on charges that he had knowingly infected or exposed multiple men to HIV. He was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison before his sentence was overturned. Johnson was known as “Tiger Mandingo” in news accounts — a nickname which was all the more racially charged given that the majority of Johnson’s sexual partners pressing charges against him were white.

The racism surrounding Michael Johnson’s arrest, trial, and press was profound. In 2015, Johnson went to trial with jurors who called homosexuality “disgusting” and “sinful.” Johnson had received an abstinence only education and had learning disabilities which were ignored in his sentencing. Despite no RNA testing of the HIV strains Johnson and his accuser had – a process through which strains of HIV can be identified – Johnson received a 30-year sentence. At the time, the average sentence for second-degree murder in Missouri was 27 years. In 2016, Johnson mustered support to ask for a review of his sentence, which was overturned due to gross prosecutorial misconduct.

Thrasher illustrated how HIV was framed as an invasion of the national body – a tactic that depends on perpetuating the myths that the U.S. is disease free and that Haitians and Africans are diseased. HIV is constructed as a “terrorist” threat to the U.S. national body, where people living with HIV are imagined and policed as biological “terrorists.” Thrasher discussed the establishment of Guantanamo Bay as an infinite detention center in 1991 under President George H. W. Bush as an attempt to curb Haitian refugee migration into the United States. Hundreds of Haitians living with HIV were sterilized at Guantanamo Bay without their consent or knowledge. “This was not Nazi Germany. This was the United States,” Thrasher said. The criminalization is to protect individual white bodies and the U.S. as a national body, which only serves to add to the violent policing of Blackness, queerness, and transness.

While first narratives, such as Robert Rayford as HIV/AIDS “Patient Zero,” are interesting, Thrasher argued that there is no one “Patient Zero” because HIV is a social issue. A holistic view of national wellness must take into account social behaviors, factors, and networks. Thrasher turned to work by Zoe Leonard to highlight that what “AIDS revealed was not the problem of the virus,” but rather “the problems of our society. It was this fissure through which everything, all the ways in which our society isn’t working, became really clear. The sexism was clearly delineated, the racism was clearly delineated, [the] classism,” (ACT UP Oral History Project).

While Black Americans are still disproportionately affected by HIV and by violent policing, these disparities are being actively erased as part of an “end of AIDS” narrative. In 2018, an op-ed published in the New York Times alleged that “AIDS is no longer a crisis, at least in the US, and that is a phenomenal public health success story.” But the facts still remain:

  • 1 million people die from AIDS globally per year
  • 30-40 million people are living with HIV globally
  • 1 million people live with HIV in the U.S.
  • 1 in every 2 Black queer men will become HIV positive in their lifetime (CDC, 2016)

Looking at the differences in data between 1995 and 2015 highlights the glaring racial health disparities between Black and white populations over time in relation to HIV/AIDS. The rate of AIDS among Black Americans as recently as 2015 was higher than the rate of AIDS among white Americans in 1995 when preventative drugs and treatment came to market (CDC Atlas Plus):

  • Rates of AIDS among whites in 1995 = 15.4/100,000
  • Rates of AIDS among Blacks in 2015 = 21.8/100,000

“So why is AIDS historicized in the past if it is still worse for Black Americans?” The only explanation why the rates are worse for Black Americans even after drugs for prevention and treatment have become available is structural racism, Thrasher explained.

Thrasher argued that the reason the intersection of race and HIV is still largely ignored is because it’s not happening to the people in power. Thrasher examined media coverage of HIV/AIDS over time and found that before 1995, only 18% of English language newspaper stories talked about race, and currently, stories are more than five times more likely not to mention Black people than to mention them.

Thrasher concluded the lecture by urging fellow researchers, journalists, clinicians, and community organizers to start thinking about how racism, sexism, and classism address HIV/AIDS. Thrasher quoted AIDS activist Vito Russo, emphasizing how little has changed for Black Americans living with HIV/AIDS in the 30 years since Russo challenged the systemic homophobia and racism: “If I’m dying from anything, I’m dying from homophobia. If I’m dying from anything, I’m dying from racism. If I’m dying from anything, it’s from the indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis,” (ACT UP Demonstration in Albany NY, May 9, 1988).

Thrasher will be turning his dissertation “Infectious Blackness: ‘Tiger Mandingo,’ Racial Compromise in Missouri, and Criminalized HIV/AIDS in America” into a book. Stay tuned for more details on his work.

ISGMH’s Current Issues in LGBTQ Health lecture series is generously supported by the Northwestern University Office of the Provost’s Hollister Lecture Fund and by Northwestern Medicine.