Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis

Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis

Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis

Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis


In Infectious Ideas, Jennifer Brier convincingly argues that the AIDS epidemic had a profound effect the American political landscape. Viewing contemporary history from the perspective of the AIDS crisis, she provides rich, new understandings of the complex social and political trends of the post-1960s era.

Brier describes how AIDS workers--in groups as disparate as the gay and lesbian press, AIDS service organizations, private philanthropies, and the State Department--influenced American politics, especially on issues such as gay and lesbian rights, reproductive health, racial justice, and health care policy, even in the face of the expansion of the New Right. Indeed, the book shows that efforts to deal with AIDS produced significant fissures in the conservative movement during this period, especially when the State Department and USAID adopted AIDS as a centerpiece of its diplomatic strategy, including the distribution of millions of condoms overseas.

Infectious Ideas places recent social, cultural, and political events in a new light, making an important contribution to our understanding of the United States at the end of the twentieth century.


It is Now axiomatic that the aids epidemic was, and continues to be, political. We know less, however, about how that axiom came to be. Infectious Ideas argues that aids became political over the course of the 1980s, not only because more and more people were infected with what came to be known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as the state failed to respond adequately to the health problem created as more people became ill, but also because a wide range of actors articulated a multifaceted set of ideas in response to the aids epidemic. Those actions, which evolved over the course of the decade, existed in opposition to the state’s initial intransigence and reframed aids in a larger political and economic context.

People reacting to the emergent aids epidemic in the early 1980s inserted sexuality into the public sphere at a moment when the state did everything it could to avoid the subject. aids workers—I use this term to identify people who were expressly committed to addressing the effects of AIDS—and people with aids insisted that aids required a return to, not a departure from, the explicitly political tenets of gay liberation. While they talked in graphic detail about sexual practices and how those acts could be “safe,” deploying explicit sexual images in aids prevention posters, they also understood that sexuality had a political dimension. Part of that political ethos, won in battles for gay liberation in the 1970s, held that gays and lesbians had the power to create healthy communities. By the 1980s, an era when the state was in a process of political and cultural retrenchment manifested most dramatically by the dismantling of the welfare state and attempts to surveil the moral content of federal directives, aids workers used their historical vision and political commitments to carve out important spaces in which sexuality figured in new models of care.

Over the course of the 1980s, however, this model of sexual politics became increasingly problematic. the definition of sexual politics inherited from the 1970s held an unspoken assumption about race. the very . . .

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