When Silence Equals Death

About Cole Parke

On Friday, December 15, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration has prohibited the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from using the terms “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”

CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald rebutted the claim in a Facebook post on Sunday, saying, “I want to assure you that CDC remains committed to our public health mission as a science- and evidence-based institution. As part of our commitment to provide for the common defense of the country against health threats, science is and will remain the foundation of our work.”

Fitzgerald neglected to address the other five words included on the originally reported list, which was disclosed to the Post by an anonymous CDC analyst, and confirmed by other CDC officials.

When CDC was founded in 1946 (then called the Communicable Disease Center), its primary objective was fighting and preventing the spread of malaria. Today, CDC is the nation’s top public health agency, and is looked to as a global leader in the prevention and control of “infectious and chronic diseases, injuries, workplace hazards, disabilities, and environmental health threats.”

In her Facebook post, Fitzgerald went on to assert that “CDC has a long-standing history of making public health and budget decisions that are based on the best available science and data and for the benefit of all people — and we will continue to do so.”

It’s true that CDC has historically served as a reliable source of science- and evidence-based research, and has played a critical role in protecting and promoting public health. As a federal agency, however, it is susceptible to the priorities and politics of the White House. The history of the AIDS epidemic is a tragic example of what can happen when those in power insert their oppressive ideologies and agendas into institutions that are otherwise intended to keep us safe.

The first reported AIDS cases emerged in 1981, and it quickly became evident that a national health crisis was developing. On April 23, 1984, CDC announced 4,177 reported cases in the United States, and 1,807 deaths. But as more and more people succumbed to AIDS, the White House remained silent, refusing to address what was at the time dismissed and derided as “the gay disease.”

AIDS research was chronically underfunded throughout the early years of the epidemic. When doctors at the CDC and the National Institute of Health requested more funding for their work on AIDS, they were routinely denied it. Historian and journalist Michael Bronski highlights a striking contrast in priorities: “Between June 1981 and May 1982 the CDC spent less than $1 million on AIDS and $9 million on Legionnaires Disease. At that point more than 1,000 of the 2,000 reported AIDS cases resulted in death; there were fewer than 50 deaths from Legionnaires Disease.”

By the time President Reagan finally began addressing the issue of AIDS in earnest, it was 1987. Over 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed and nearly 60 percent of them had died. Reagan declared that AIDS was ”public health enemy No. 1,” but insisted that the crisis was as much a moral issue as it was a medical one, recommending that abstinence was the best form of prevention.

His commentary reflects the influence of the newly established Moral Majority, which was founded and lead by right-wing evangelical Jerry Falwell, who once declared, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Whether or not Reagan agreed with Falwell that AIDS was some sort of God-ordained punishment for LGBTQ people, his silence made him complicit in the deadly politicization of homophobia.

Despite significant advancements in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, the world is still without a cure, and the disease continues to have devastating consequences. According to the World Health Organization, “Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV.” It’s estimated that 36.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2016.

Luiz Loures, deputy director of UNAIDS, notes, “AIDS spreads most quickly wherever people are being discriminated against.” Though the medical community has thoroughly debunked the notion of HIV/AIDS being a “gay disease,” the association — and its attached negative stigma — remains high.

In Russia, the spread of HIV is currently being described as “catastrophic.” According to the United Nations’ UNAIDS program, in 2015 Russia had the third-highest number of new HIV infections globally. In December 2016, the Russian Federal AIDS Center reported that there were more than 1.1 million diagnosed cases of HIV in Russia.

Speaking about the situation in Russia, Sylvia Urban of the umbrella group German AIDS Service Organization observes that issues of sexuality in general and homosexuality, in particular, are taboo. Anti-LGBTQ oppression and violence in the country have been on the rise in recent years, further emboldened by the passage of Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law in 2013, which banned “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.”

In an eerie echoing of Reagan’s 1987 comments, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a trusted advisor to President Putin, has called for “moral education” in response to the country’s AIDS crisis, stressing that the “establishment of family values, ideals of chastity and marital fidelity” should be at the forefront of curbing the virus. Vadim Pokrovskiy, head of the Russian Federal AIDS Center, blames this Kremlin-approved “conservative approach” for the fact that the number of HIV-infected Russians has more than doubled in the last decade.

I’ve previously described Russia’s Anti-Propaganda Law as a slow death sentence for the way it effectively isolates LGBTQ people from one another, restricting access to any evidence that they are not alone. The law, along with the culture of stigma-fueled silence that it reinforces, is also a death sentence for the way that it fails to curtail the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Government-sanctioned silence, whether it be in the form of neglectful indifference or outright censorship has serious, and sometimes deadly consequences, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

The Russian Orthodox Church was a key player in the passage of the Anti-Propaganda Law, and here in the U.S., the Christian Right’s fingerprints are all over the CDC’s censorship. The banned vocabulary list is part of a thinly veiled effort to advance a familiar agenda — one that aims to erase transgender people out of existence, eliminate abortion access, and maintain the status quo (i.e. White supremacy, Christian hegemony, and 1% economics).

Government-sanctioned silence, whether it be in the form of neglectful indifference or outright censorship has serious, and sometimes deadly consequences, especially for the most vulnerable among us.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.