To truly address anti-black racism in HIV work and the disconnect between the HIV/AIDS and the racial justice movement, we have much to learn from emerging fields that are rooted in intersectionality – Disability Justice and Healing Justice. On a movement level, they offer us essential frameworks to support the complexity of HIV/AIDS and its impact on black people. Disability justice (DJ), developed in 2005 initially by disabled queer women of color, articulates the intricate connections between white supremacy, capitalism and ableism. The way that black folks, women, queer and trans people, as well as people with disabilities, are constructed as abnormal, deviant, dangerous, subhuman, and undesirable in our society, provides dominant groups with the ability to create profit and status through the exploitations of oppressed people.1
Patty Berne, one of the originators of Disability Justice and the Director of Sins Invalid, shares, [this] “framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We are in a global system that is incompatible with life. There is no way stop a single gear in motion — we must dismantle this machine.” The field of HIV prevention, care and treatment has much to gain from no longer pathologizing bodies seen as deviant or diseased and allowing people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS full self-determination in their healthcare and wellbeing.
Similar to Disability Justice, Healing Justice has also emerged as an intersectional framework developed by queer women of color. It is a way to “holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence and to bring collective practices that can impact and transform the consequences of oppression on our bodies, hearts and minds.”2 Healing Justice seeks to reclaim our well-being from within and outside of the medical industrial complex; sees alignment of mind, body and spirit as essential to well-being; and restores as well as legitimizes the role of our indigenous traditions as people of color. Instead of viewing HIV/AIDS as something to be prevented, fixed or cured, what if we were truly concerned with discovering what healing really means for poz people? For some, this may not involve the medical system at all and that choice has to be respected. What if each of us had access to the resources necessary for our well-being based on our own desires? These are not questions that are asked of black folks who are HIV positive.
What would our policies around HIV/AIDS look like if we integrated Disability and Healing Justice? For starters, HIV transmission would no longer be considered a crime, in addition to sex work and substance use. Black sex workers and drug user communities often bear the brunt of criminalization and police harassment due to fear of HIV. Universal healthcare that includes access to people of color’s traditional healing modalities, lifting the federal ban on syringe exchange, and providing treatment and support for poz people in prisons and immigration detention centers would send a clear message about the dignity of people living with and affected by HIV. Comprehensive sex education that centers sexual pleasure, body positivity and tools around consent would give black folks the resources to make solid decisions about their sexual health and safety free from shame and judgment.
Ultimately, to truly support black poz communities, we must invest in the leadership of black people living with HIV/AIDS. This means challenging the complete absence of black folks or tokenization in leadership on a movement level, in policy, and in our organizations. We must confront the very real and insidious ways that anti-black racism and misogyny show up in our work every day – even when we have organizations run by black folks. In order to do this we need to change structures and institutions that can be transformed and be willing to let go of those that cannot. Until black folks -in particular poz, queer, trans, poor and disabled black folks – are calling the shots and given the resources behind it, we will never reach any substantive solutions in regards to HIV in this country.
The biggest lesson I have learned from black people living with HIV in my community is that there is power in being seen, held and deeply listened to by other black people. We are all on a healing journey and need the space to reflect, get support and have the authority to make decisions for ourselves. With this, we can transform our communities and the structures that bind us. Our liberation as black people is deeply connected to our ability to love ourselves enough to survive when we can, heal, tell the truth, fight for each other and no longer be complicit in the destruction happening in our community.
Much gratitude to all the freedom-loving black people and PoC allies who have inspired and informed this series. The wisdom we need for liberation is within us, and our communities.