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Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis
BOOK REVIEW
by Tracy Baim
2010-02-03

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Written by Jennifer Brier. $35; The University of North Carolina Press; 312 pages

What was the Reagan Administration's response to AIDS? How did ACT UP confront the slow and biased medical and political establishments? What did foundations do to support HIV and AIDS education?

These and other questions are answered in a new book by University of Illinois at Chicago scholar Jennifer Brier. Brier is an assistant professor of gender and women's studies and history; her book includes the perspective of how feminists and lesbians played a role in the early years of the AIDS crisis.

There is no way any one book could investigate all the tentacles of HIV and AIDS, so Brier's book focuses narrowly on a few key areas. She does not, however, stay within the borders of the U.S. She also compares the U.S. and the "global south." She addresses efforts in Brazil, Thailand, Haiti and parts of Africa.

Probably the most politically interesting part of the book for me was reviewing what happened during the Reagan years, when President Ronald Reagan and conservatives dominated the political landscape. I started covering the gay community in 1984, for GayLife newspaper, when there were just a few dozen AIDS cases in Chicago, and the country was in a right-wing swing. Progressive activists were stifled but also divided, because gays were not quite welcomed into the fold. Without strong support from either major political party, gays found themselves outsiders at a time when many started dying as if in a war zone.

Brier has researched memos from the Reagan years, documenting that the conservative right was not of one mind about AIDS. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was among those advocating for unbiased and comprehensive education to prevent the further spread of AIDS. But Koop was battling against Reagan appointees, including key Reagan advisor Gary Bauer, who wanted to use the disease as part of a push for "morality."

It took Reagan years to actually focus his attention and public comments on AIDS, but Brier shows that despite this, some work was being done by courageous conservatives who saw a bigger picture of health.

"The historical understanding of the 1980s as a period of unrelenting conservatism also has much to do with how people who considered themselves opponents of the Right experienced the decade," Brier writes. She argues that historians have failed to note "political alternatives existed side by side with conservatism throughout the decade." She says AIDS transformed the political landscape it inhabited, and that it helped shape an "alternative vision of progressive politics."

Even though Brier is now at UIC, her work does not have any focus on Chicago. Her main research is on 1 ) the federal response during the Reagan years; 2 ) activism, including ACT UP, especially in New York; 3 ) safe-sex marketing efforts in San Francisco; and 4 ) The Ford Foundation's response to AIDS in the global South.

The book begins by linking 1970s gay liberation efforts to the start of a response to HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s. Brier reviews the battle within the gay movement to understand the impact of the disease: there was fierce rhetoric, but many amazing groups were created. The responses included writers fighting it out in gay media columns, people setting up HIV and AIDS services, others protesting for new drugs and faster access to experimental medications, and still more activists pushing back against draconian AIDS legislation.

Because this book is so wide-ranging in its goals, it really is only a starting point for those interested in the politics of AIDS. Fortunately for readers, Brier's notes and bibliography are extensive and provide hundreds of additional resources.

My main complaint with the book is that its academic approach can sometimes seem dispassionate, and I wanted there to be more follow up on some of the early leaders of the AIDS movement, especially those she quotes who later died. Many people are mentioned but we are rarely told how their personal stories ended, or if they survived the war's early years. These were often bright young men and women in their 20s or 30s, lives cut short, but not wasted, as they battled for drugs that would save at least some of their generation from the holocaust of AIDS.

But to end on a strong note, it is important to have a feminist perspective on the AIDS epidemic, and Brier documents how early activism and responses to AIDS often included both lesbian and lesbian-feminist thinkers and fighters. This is an important addition to the literature on AIDS, and one of the many reasons I would recommend the book. The chapter on Reagan alone, with excellent original source material, is worth the price of admission.


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