Joseph Cotto, 2/10/2015 [Archive]

Southern Inhospitality: HIV in Dixie

By Joseph Cotto

The HIV/AIDS crisis has never failed to evoke strong emotions on either end of the political spectrum.

Many on the right see the spread of HIV as rooted in personal irresponsibility at best, and depraved behavior at worst. Many on the left believe that programs such as needle exchanges for illegal drug users can go a long way toward combating the virus.

In either case, highly charged rhetoric often trumps an actual discussion of the matter. This leaves those suffering from HIV and AIDS at an insurmountable loss — not to mention their loved ones. As modern history has all too sadly shown, the interests of these people are easily, if not casually, neglected in favor of pursuing an ideological crusade.

Whether the people pursuing the crusade are politicians, preachers, lobbyists, or activists matters not. The fact is that they treat public health as an accessory to a cause which was established long beforehand.

This sad state of affairs has never been so prevalent as it is in the South. That is due to a myriad of factors, not the least of which have to do with economic depression, the intertwining of fundamentalist religion with political affairs, and strongly negative inter-community relations. When all of these factors combine, a perfect storm develops that severely diminishes the possibility for adequate health care in socially and financially impoverished areas.

According to journalist Lisa Biagiotti, creator of Deepsouth, a documentary about HIV in Dixie's more insular locales, the problem is worse than many of us would like to admit. Actually, it is so dire that it's hard even to believe the statistics.

In a 2012 article for The Los Angeles Times, Biagiotti noted that 50 percent of all recent HIV infections take place within this region and that most Americans who are HIV-positive live there as well. Thus the South claiming our nation's greatest death totals from AIDS should not be a surprise. Beyond this, Dixie's resources are grossly insufficient to bring about much needed changes.


One thing to remember is that HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts black men, who already comprise a great deal of the South's most impoverished ranks.

In her Times piece, Biagiotti wrote that "HIV is a social illness affecting a deeply entrenched underclass." This underclass can be found in places that "tend to have high rates of incarceration, teen pregnancies and unemployment." Especially startling is that younger "black men who have sex with men bear the burden of new infections, with a 60 percent chance of being infected by age 40."

This is horrid enough, but after interviewing scores of gay Southern black men, she found something especially grotesque: None too few lead seemingly heterosexual public lives and "try to be invisible in a culture that can accept black men as prisoners, drug dealers, gangsters, adulterers, absent fathers — but not as gay."

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction; or at least more dangerous.

Indeed, if true progress is ever to be made, this social structure needs more than a few major changes. Schemes such as affirmative action and wealth redistribution will not magically solve everything. As history has shown, they are far more likely to brush demanding problems under the rug and perpetuate toxic political atmospheres.

What, then, might foster a turn for the better?

We might start by trying to change attitudes like the following, which Biagiotti heard from a pastor: "Some say that homosexuality is not a sin. It is. AIDS is God's curse to a homosexual life."

Good luck opening a mind that closed, and the tens of millions who are blissfully — remember that quote about ignorance? — in tune with it.


Copyright 2015 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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