In Queensland, Australia, knowingly passing on AIDS will get you a fine of $10,000 or two years -- likely, your last two years -- in prison. In China, which has a billion people and one AIDS victim (an Argentine tourist), "many people in society now have a terror of this disease," writes the Shanghai Liberation Daily. And in Pakistan, politicians and Islamic scholars have demanded a ban on used clothing imports so as not to bring AIDS into the country. There are suspicions, however, that the local textile industry is behind the move.
Clearly, AIDS hysteria (like protectionism) is not just an American phenomenon. But it is an American phenomenon. We have now reached the point where politicians are running against AIDS. The idea was foreshadowed several years ago by, predictably, the Falwell fringe. The ever vigilant Moral Majority Report ran a cover story on protecting the blood supply, a subject for which, up until then, it had evinced little interest. But that was before the issue could be used for gay-bashing.
Things have now progressed to the point where in two cities, New York and Houston, major party candidates for mayor are running on AIDS. In Houston, Louie Welch is trying to cash in on last January's referendum on anti-discrimination legislation for gays. It was rejected by a crushing 4-1 margin. Mayor Kathy Whitmire supported that political disaster. Welch is challenging her and, in turn, is supported by the "Straight Slate" for city council, a party of homophobes, admirable only for its candor.
In New York, Republican Diane McGrath does not just want to shut down gay establishments, such as bathhouses, bars and theaters. She wants everyone, from teachers to barbers, who comes into "intimate" contact with others to be tested for AIDS antibodies and fired if found to carry them.
Now, we already have laws preventing teachers from having "intimate" contact with their students. And I don't know about New York, but where I come from intimacy with barbers is not a terribly widespread practice. So, by "intimate" McGrath must mean touching, breathing and other forms of contact that are more properly called casual.
And the evidence that AIDS is not transmitted by casual contact is overwhelming. And obvious. After all, if it were spread casually, it would be found in the household -- parents and siblings -- of children with AIDS. It is not. It would be found in hospital workers who treat AIDS patients. It is not. The fact is plain: AIDS is hard to transmit. It stubbornly sticks to certain high-risk groups engaged in sexual (particularly homosexual) promiscuity and intravenous drug abuse. Neither is a casual activity.
And, even more important, both are voluntary. What McGrath is calling for is occupational quarantine. Quarantine is justified and universally supported when it is the only way to protect citizens from infection -- involuntary infection. If Jones can give you his tuberculosis by sneezing on you in a subway car, then society may -- must -- protect you by locking him up. But, in fact, for Jones to give you his AIDS, he needs your full cooperation in a rather complicated act. What possible reason can society have for locking up Jones in the name of protecting you?
And remember: it is not enough simply to lock up, or lock out, AIDS victims. It is not generally known, but AIDS carriers (i.e. those with AIDS antibodies, but who have no sign of disease) are probably more infectious to others than are AIDS victims. The carriers number from one to two million. What to do? Lock them all up? Our Japanese detention camps during World War II held a mere 120,000.
The impulse to quarantine comes, I suspect, neither from public health concern, nor even from fear. It comes from anti-gay prejudice. Thanks to AIDS, there is a lot of it going around. McGrath and Welch may not win, but they know they found an issue.
The turn in the fortunes of the gay movement is startling. After a steady, heady climb from criminality, to illness, to tolerated deviance, to "cage aux folles" life style, homosexuality is once again reverting to the status of public menace.
It has quite simply come to stand for death. We have an almost irresistible desire to find moral meaning in our plagues, the need to see, in Susan Sontag's phrase, "illness as metaphor." Leprosy is a synonym for decay, tuberculosis identified with refinement, cancer a metaphor for evil. AIDS is now making an identity between homosexuality and fatal contagion. Like the death of Zola's Nana, death by AIDS, ugly and inexorable, is now taken as symbolic of an underlying corruption of the soul.
Such a symbol is tempting to run against. McGrath, and probably Welch, will lose next week. But their choice of platform is a warning to gays that homosexual political gains of the last quarter century are over and about to be reversed -- done in not just by AIDS, or even the fear of AIDS, but by the metaphor it conjures up. The call for quarantine is just the beginning.