HIV/AIDS since the 1980s Conference

Co-organisers Nikolaos Papadogiannis and Rachel Love report back on the August 2022 conference on transnational and comparative histories of HIV/AIDS.

The ‘Reactions to HIV/AIDS since the 1980s: Transnational and comparative history perspectives’ conference, which took place at the University of St Andrews on 30-31 August 2022, aimed to consolidate the growing interdisciplinary research on transnational and socio-cultural histories of responses to HIV/AIDS. The conference paid particular attention to cross-border transfers and intersectionality. Researchers from diverse disciplines—especially history, sociology, and anthropology—explored a wide array of contexts, including understudied topics like Central Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Scandinavia, West Africa and Latin America. These papers also studied a wide range of actors, such as gay cismen, transgender people, sex workers of various gender identities and sexual orientations, and ethnic minorities of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations.

Mobilities, Networks & Policies

The first panel, “Mobilities and Networks: Part 1”, chaired by Rachel Love, discussed state efforts to control HIV/AIDS alongside activist efforts to resist stigmatisation, and create solidarities across identities. Christopher Ewing’s paper examined the shifting debates of the West German AIDS Enquete Commission as it first targeted sex tourism as a vector of AIDS and then sex tourism as exploitation. Nikolaos Papadogiannis, using as a case study the sex workers’ rights group Hydra in Berlin, explored the complex links that Hydra activists developed with migrant sex workers to combat AIDS-related stigma in the 1980s and 1990s. Somak Biswas discussed how AIDS remade British border discourse in relation to African and Asian immigrant flows in late ’80s and ’90s Britain. Finally, Giulia Sbaffi followed the political mobilisation of sex workers in Italy, arguing that these testimonies constitute a queer history and offer a model for contesting the present and building community.

The second session, “Policies”, chaired by Maud Bracke, explored how doctors, policymakers and activists, among others, helped shape AIDS-related perceptions and government policies. Maja Lukanc demonstrated how Slovenian journalists and gay activists, notably the transnational festivals of the Magnus Gay Club, helped exchange ideas around HIV/AIDS. However, Lukanc showed that such transnational flows were often filtered through the national context, as the Yugoslav federal authorities were sometimes sceptical about this festival. Mathew Ayodele argued that research has underestimated the effort of state institutions in the Global South to deal with HIV/AIDS, neglecting, in this vein, the efforts of the Nigerian government, which participated international conferences on reproductive healthcare and partnered with both local and international non-government organisations on health policies. Michael Nebeling Petersen, Bolette Frydendahl Larsen, and Tobias de Fønss Wung-Sung discussed AIDS policies in Denmark, taking a comparative and transnational history perspective. Although Danish policymakers were influenced by transnational stigmas of HIV/AIDS, such as the notion of the “gay male disease”, they nonetheless worked closely with Danish gay and lesbian activists and developed a pragmatic approach that encouraged individual agency. They stood in contrast with Swedish policymakers, who opted for coercive interventions. However, in the mid 1990s the ‘soft’ Danish policies hardened as the notion of AIDS changed from a gay male disease to a heterosexual Haitian and African disease.

The third panel was entitled ‘Mobilities and Networks, Part 2’ and was chaired by Nikolaos Papadogiannis. It discussed forms of cross-border conversations and the incipient efforts to create transnational coalitions against AIDS-related stigma. Javier Fernández-Galeano addressed the response of the Barcelona mutual aid and healthcare organization, Institut Lambda, to HIV/AIDS between 1983 and 1998. He explored connections between activists in Latin America and Barcelona while also considering the mental mappings that framed the perceptions of the latter. A case in point was the ‘homonationalist’ belief that Spain was more ‘progressive’ regarding HIV/AIDS policies than the USA. Brian de Grazia used the 1992 “United Colours” advertising campaign by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani for the fashion brand Benetton to examine Italian media discourse surrounding HIV/AIDS. He situated this analysis within the arrival of mass migration to Italy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Italian far right, and the international war on drugs.

Continuing the discussion, Elazar Ben-Lulu analysed religious responses to HIV and argued that the US American Reform Jewish community served as a social agent for the recognition of people with HIV/AIDS, standing in stark contrast to the AIDSphobic Jewish Orthodox agenda. He also referred to transnational patterns of mourning and commemoration between Jewish communities in the USA and Israel. Returning to Italy, Rachel Love examined Italian queer and activist media like Babilonia and Essepiù for how they harnessed the international circulation of HIV/AIDS-related materials—from international health organizations and activists like Peter Tatchell, among others—to produce a counterdiscourse in translation dedicated not just to survival of the disease but also of its related stigmas.

Activisms & Testimonies

In lieu of a keynote speaker, we hosted a roundtable discussion where experts explored the transnational connections within their research on responses to HIV/AIDS and the conceptual and methodological tools they used to study these connections.  Some of the discussants took a broad, transregional perspective. Christophe Broqua examined activism in France, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal and discussed the international circulation of forms of mobilisation, including the transatlantic transfers between AIDS activist groups (e.g. ACT UP). Broqua contrasted the more egalitarian contact of AIDS activists in the Global North to the hierarchies underpinning the communication between such activists in the Global North and the Global South. Ayaz Qureshi discussed political and social responses to HIV/AIDS in Pakistan. He explored the tensions and challenges inherent in outsourcing of interventions to transnational NGOs and, in particular, how the transformation of HIV prevention into a product delivered by such NGOs in turn shifts healthcare from a public good into a private commodity. Lukas Engelmann, shifting the conversation to the medical humanities, traced the impact of HIV/AIDS on engagement with sexually transmitted infections and, more broadly, the social and transdisciplinary collaborations that have shaped epidemiological thinking in the wake of the epidemic.

Other participants in the roundtable focused on Europe. Discussing methodological approaches to transnational activism, Agata Dziuban and Todd Sekuler, co-founders of the European HIV/AIDS Archive of the Humboldt University of Berlin and authors of “We are infecting people with activism”. Oral Histories of European HIV/AIDS Activists, argued that new oral history  Laura Kelly examined the history of Positively Irish Action on AIDS, an Irish community-based organisation in London set up between drug workers and gay men. Kelly explored cross-border transfers of ideas between AIDS activists in Ireland and the UK, and she opened up definitions of activism to a Catholic context while also considering the transnational communication of emotions like shame.

The last session bore the title ‘Testimonies’ and was chaired by Kate Ferris. In his talk, Colin Moore explored the transnational flows of ideas that shaped HIV/AIDS activism in Scotland and how this activism compared to similar initiatives elsewhere in the UK. Although HIV/AIDS activists in Scotland were influenced by the publications of campaigners elsewhere in Europe, such as in Denmark, Moore also stressed the impact of local factors on the crisis and responses to it. For instance, in contrast with other parts of the UK, the main parameter leading to the transmission of HIV in Edinburgh was not sexual contact but intravenous drug use. Jade Crimson Rose Da Costa examined interviews with 35 racialized and Indigenous organizers across central Southern Ontario for their understanding of local histories of HIV/AIDS activism and how the disease itself has been racialized and stereotyped. In the process, they called for more diverse representation in People with AIDS media and further research to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on Indigenous people and people of colour in Canada. Yuji Kawasima addressed a paradox: why the Brazilian art history field has been reluctant to study the impact of HIV/AIDS, while Brazil has set up ‘an internationally acclaimed prevention and treatment model for many developing countries’. To help fill this gap, Kawasima explored the illustrations of José Leonilson Bezerra Dias, a gay and HIV-positive artist, as a ‘powerful visibility platform’.

Conjoining Transnational Perspectives

Over these two days, we enjoyed rich panels with a variety of methodological approaches to networks of contact and mobilization, as well as forms of activism in contexts neglected by the focus on the experience of AIDS in western metropoles. We explored experiences of grief, the preservation and transmission of memory, and the importance of testimony and the archive. Papers offered opportunities to explore how diverse activists and others on the margins have asserted their presence and their desire to build community in response to the threat of cross-border moral panics and transnational stigma. We also confronted the challenges of generalizing international phenomena and the necessity of considering local contexts and adjusting definitions and approaches accordingly, as well as the need to resist a narrative of transmission of knowledge “from the west to the rest.”

Cumulatively, what has emerged from this conference is that transnational and intersectional approaches to HIV/AIDS discourse complement and nuance each other and, thus, need to be used conjointly. These approaches illuminate multi-layered experiences and contradictory representations of living with AIDS. Thus, they help complicate prevailing narratives about the impact of HIV/AIDS, such as the argument by Dagmar Herzog that responses to HIV/AIDS, at least in Europe, gradually resulted in the ‘erosion’ of ‘simplistic assumptions about the differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals’ (Herzog 2011: 182). In complicating this narrative, conference delegates discussed various parameters: the complex link between AIDS and gay visibility; ‘race’; neoliberalism; religion.

Several speakers highlighted the dual impact of perceptions of HIV/AIDS on gay men: it both accentuated bias against them but also led to local, national and transnational campaigns that amplified their visibility. As we witnessed during the conference, this duality is manifest in several contexts, which require further analysis, such like Ireland, Slovenia and Denmark, and did not necessarily lead to the abovementioned erosion.

The parameter of ‘race’ further complicates the history of HIV/AIDS. Some delegates have highlighted the need for further research on whether and the extent to which ‘race’-related bias of campaigners from the Global North has circumscribed, even hampered, their contact with diverse campaigners from the Global South, including genderqueer people and migrant sex workers of various sexualities and gender identities.

Regarding divides between the Global North and South, several participants have built on their recent research to show how neoliberalism has been shaping the interaction between transnational NGOs and funding bodies, on the one hand, and local activists, on the other. The worldwide decline of health as a public good and the prevalence of neoliberal marketised approaches to health and healthcare have reproduced disparities within each country and between the Global North and the Global South. Regarding the latter hierarchies, the activity of local campaigners in the Global South is often eclipsed by better-resourced transnational NGOs and/or restricted by the amount of support from funding bodies based in the Global North.

The conference delegates have also considered the significance of transnational religious networks, such as Catholic and Jewish ones, in addressing HIV/AIDS, and the varying approaches to people living with AIDS that have appeared in those networks. Those approaches may have been empowering, exclusionary or ambiguous to various groups of people living with AIDS, and their complexity has not been thoroughly researched.

The Reactions to HIV/AIDS since the 1980s conference was funded by the AHRC Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship of Nikolaos Papadogiannis. The full programme of the conference is available here.

Participants have created a post-conference forum, which is open to new members and their suggestions. If interested in contributing to the forum, please contact Nikolaos Papadogiannis and Rachel Love at transnationalaids@gmail.com.

About the Conveners

Nikolaos Papadogiannis is a Research Fellow at the University of St Andrews and PI of the AHRC-funded project on Transnational AIDS Activism in Western Europe in the 1980s-1990s. His research explores the history of protest, sexuality and migration in Europe since 1945. His monograph Militant around the Clock? Left-wing youth politics, leisure and sexuality in post-dictatorship Greece, 1974-1981, was published by Berghahn Books in 2015. His articles have been published, among others, in the European History Quarterly, Social History, the Journal of Contemporary History and Contemporary European History. He is co-authoring with Rachel Love a comic book on AIDS activism in Europe. He is also developing together with Rachel Love an oral history database including testimonies of AIDS activists from various European countries.

Rachel Love is a Research Fellow in the School of History of the University of St Andrews, where she works with Nikolaos Papadogiannis on the project ‘Transnational activism and Aids in Western Europe, 1980s-1990s’. She examines how media, music, and cultural exchange informed activist movements in Italy, from the upheavals of the 1960s to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. She has published articles on the intersection of Italian anti-Fascism and anti-colonialism and folk music as transnational exchange in the journals Popular Music, Modern Italy, and Interventions.

References

Herzog, Dagmar. (2011). Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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