Column: Transnational Human Rights and HIV

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World AIDS Day 2017.

By 1983-84, most U.S. LGBT activists had realized that HIV would be a major issue and that that our enemies could “demagogue” it. In response, we made HIV part of the U.S. agenda.

We failed to realize that HIV would kick-start LGBT organizing throughout the world. LGBT groups now exist in almost all countries. Some have linked modern LGBT cultures with indigenous groups like the Hijiras of South Asia.

LGBT communities are now becoming transnational. Transnationality occurs when people identify common interests with others across national borders. Transnationalism can open up curiosity and build bridges.

Transnational LGBT communities differ in their histories and key figures. South Africa has produced two key figures: Simon Nkoli and Zackie Achmat.

Simon Nkoli (1957-1998) organized against apartheid and founded the first black gay group in Africa. Apartheid authorities charged Nkoli and 21 others with treason, a death penalty charge. While on trial, Nkoli came out publically. LGBT people formed part of the transnational campaign to free him and his 21 fellow defendants. Nkoli brought LGBT issues into the African National Congress. After apartheid ended, he worked to repeal the sodomy law. Nkoli became one of the first out HIV-positive gay African men. He died from AIDS complications in 1998.

Nkoli's death inspired his friend, another LGBT activist, Zackie Achmat, to found The Treatment Action Campaign. That group fought for access to inexpensive generic antiretrovirals (ARTs). While Gandhi went on hunger strikes, Achmat went on a five-year “HIV-medication strike.” He refused to take ARTs until the poor could access them. That “HIV-medication strike” became part of the struggle against U.S. patent law to allow low-income countries to purchase generic ART. Achmat, a former sex worker, is of Malay descent, and was raised Muslim.

The response to HIV involves the question of a right to health care. In the rest of the world, most people consider health care a basic right. The U.S. government does not.

Different political traditions understand rights differently. In the U.S., the concepts of “rights” evolved from the writings of men of property such as John Locke. Their work influenced the thinking of the men who fought the War of Independence. Many of these men, like Jefferson and Washington, held other people as “property.”

In contrast, the social democratic tradition began after the U.S. War of Independence. Men and women without property led it. They developed the concepts of rights for people without property. These included such rights as rights to healthcare, education, leisure, retirement, and daycare. Social democrats endorse rights of free speech, assembly, voting, and other democratic rights.

Oscar Wilde wrote about this tradition in his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”

In this 1891 essay, he anticipates and criticizes charity as solution, rapacious capitalism, and authoritarian socialism. In this faux gilded age of boastful inequality, this 126-year-old essay can still speak to us. In some parts, it reads very 19th Century, but in others, it reads very 21st Century.

The U.S. has its own social democratic traditions. Benjamin Franklin established the first public library, a socialist institution. The U.S. has recognized a right to an education. The New Deal instituted Social Security. In 1941, FDR outlined the Four Freedoms. The third of which was Freedom from Want. The Great Society instituted Medicare. The current GOP program threatens these “entitlement” rights.

LGBT people in other parts of the world learned from ACT UP and the U.S. LGBT Movement. It is now our turn to learn from the rest of the world. LGBT rights include the right to health and healthcare.

To read “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” visit EdwardViesel.eu/0043.html.


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