In advance of World AIDS Day, on Dec. 1, Rowan Staley ’18 and June Lei ’18 organized a week of programming on campus geared toward educating — and reminding — students about the ongoing scourge of AIDS and the insidious way it reflects and reinforces classism, racism, and prejudice.
“HIV/AIDS is a complex issue that maps inequality and disenfranchisement on both national and international levels,” Lei said.
Raising awareness about the disease in young people in particular is “staggeringly important,” Staley said. “People my age don’t know anything about AIDS at all,” she added, other than perhaps as an STD they are taught to be wary of by high school sex-ed teachers.
Staley and Lei began last December to plan their campus HIV/AIDS programming, organizing a series of events to “catalyze discussion within the Bowdoin community about HIV/AIDS as a global systematic issue with local implications,” according to Lei. They were mindful about including many perspectives on the multifaceted disease. “We wanted to address the fact that AIDS has so many different narratives and stories — and that there are many more to come,” Lei said.
The disease is much more than a medical problem, both Staley and Lei emphasized, as it tends to follow society’s fault lines, cropping up in marginalized and vulnerable populations.” In the disease’s early history in the US, the virus ravaged gay white men. The infected men and their advocates had to fight a reluctant government to fund research into the development of viable treatments. Today, the disease disproportionately affects African Americans on the national scale, and Africans on the global scale. In Maine, which has relatively low rates of HIV infection, the disease mainly appears in three groups: men who have sex with men, injection drug users, and refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers.
For their first event, held on Nov. 28, Staley invited to campus her uncle, Peter Staley, who is an AIDS activist living with HIV and a major figure in the 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague. After screening the film, Rowan moderated a Q&A with her uncle.
The following night, Lei and Staley hosted a panel of experts at Bowdoin who spoke about HIV/AIDS in Maine and beyond. See below for more information about this event.
On Friday, they showed a series of short videos that focus on the disease’s often overlooked impact on people of color in the United States. “Although global transmission levels are decreasing, within smaller groups it is skyrocketing,” Staley said, such as within black gay men living in the South, who face homophobia and challenges accessing healthcare. “Black folks are forty-four percent of those newly diagnosed with HIV in this nation, yet there is little discourse and conversation around the urgency of this matter,” reports Visual AIDS, which curated the film series.
For their last event, the two seniors opened up to the public the final presentations of students in the Bowdoin class, Viral Cultures: HIV/AIDS in Science, Policy, and Culture, taught by Marika Louise Cifor, a postdoctoral fellow in Bowdoin’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies department. This is the first time this course, which Staley enrolled in, has been offered at Bowdoin.
As a pre-med student, Staley said her work with HIV/AIDS will influence her future career. “My work on this has shown me how socially comprehensive medicine needs to be,” she said. “It’ll inform my work as a doctor.”
Growing up in Greenwich Village, in New York City, Lei lived in what was the epicenter of the AIDS activism movement in the 1980s and 1990s. She was born, in 1996, in Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, one of the few city hospitals that would accept and treat HIV infected patients. As a Bowdoin student, she interned for a summer with Visual AIDS, a NYC arts organization. Lei, who is an art history and English creative writing major, said she is interested in “the arts with a social focus.”
With the week of HIV/AIDS events concluded, Lei said she hopes that going forward, Bowdoin continues to play a role in “honing critical discourse in all of the many disciplines that this issue intersects with.”
Staley added: “The disease is happening here, it’s happening everywhere, and if we don’t keep focusing on it, it’ll continue to grow and won’t go away.”
Panelists discuss local and global HIV/AIDS narratives
By Carly Berlin ’18
Students and faculty gathered last week for the second event of Bowdoin’s HIV/AIDS week: a panel discussion called “The Local and Global: HIV/AIDS in Maine and Beyond.” Panelists included Erica Rand, a professor of art and visual culture at Bates College and a member of ACT UP Portland; Warren Buckingham, former director of AIDS Outreach for the Peace Corps and former PEPFAR leader in Kenya; and Donna Galluzzo, executive director of Portland’s Peabody Center, which is a nonprofit dedicated to preventing the spread of HIV and providing support for those living with HIV/AIDS in Maine.
Moderated by June Lei ’18, the panelists spoke to the narratives that get told—and, do not get told—about HIV/AIDS, both within the state of Maine and throughout the world.
After introducing themselves, they discussed what HIV/AIDS looks like today and who they advocate for. Galluzzo said that while Maine is a low incident state, she sees three significant subsets of the population reflected at the Peabody Center: men who have sex with men; refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers; and injection drug users. “These are among the most stigmatized groups in Maine, and their paths do not usually cross,” she said. She is frustrated by the question she so often receives by those outside of her line of work: “Is AIDS still a thing?”
Lei reminded the audience that HIV/AIDS is very much still a thing, and a thing that, disproportionately affects African Americans on the national scale, and Africans on the global scale. The three panelists agreed that there are so many stories of the disease that need to be told: for instance, stories about African girls who contract AIDS through coerced sex, about the people who live with HIV/AIDS here in the U.S., and about the many lives lost to the disease.
All found frustration in the recently-coined slogan, “End AIDS by 2030.” Galluzzo argued that we need to keep working to eradicate HIV/AIDS in the U.S., especially with the threat the current administration poses to funding cuts. Buckingham said that this slogan is merely that—a slogan—and makes it sound like HIV/AIDS will die a natural death. Rand added that we need to be talking about different understanding of sex and social arrangements that will ultimately bring an end to HIV/AIDS.
Buckingham synthesized these thoughts into a refashioned slogan. “AIDS is still a thing. It doesn’t have to be. Do your part.”