The Possibility of an HIV Vaccine and How it Could Bring Justice to Queer Communities

Written by Cecilia Rogers 

Designed by Kavya Parekh

This year, on the list of clinical trials for the United States National Institute of Health (NIH) is Moderna’s trial for an experimental HIV vaccine. The novel vaccine, like their COVID-19 vaccine, is an mRNA vaccine. This new technology could help stimulate an immune response in order to battle HIV/AIDS. Theoretically, this vaccine will function to promote a cell’s production of a category of antibodies called broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs). The idea is that this versatile antibody would be able to adjust to the rapidly changing form of HIV, which is modified each time it replicates. If all goes well, this vaccine could be the first of several needed to neutralize HIV/AIDS.

This possibility provides not only hope from a medical standpoint but from a social justice perspective as well. In particular, this disease has had long lasting negative impacts on the LGBTQ+ community, and the development of this vaccine would be a form of reparation for suffering endured by this group due to the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

In 1981, a new disease seemed to be targeting young homosexual men. These men were dying from a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. This phenomenon was quickly dubbed the “gay cancer” and considered a result of the “homosexual lifestyle”. Once determined to be a sexually transmitted disease, the discourse around this syndrome further demonized homosexual contact, and this disease soon became commonly known as GRID: Gay-­Related Immune Deficiency. The language used to talk about this disease served to generalize the communities it affected and describe homosexuality as a health hazard. Generalizations and social stigma led to the failure to intricately study this illness which impeded any progress toward treating it. It was not until 1987 that AZT started being used as the first treatment for HIV/AIDS, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the death rates decreased by 47% thanks to a new, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Current antiretroviral therapy (ART) requires taking a combination of HIV medicines daily which reduces the amount of HIV in the body. This treatment can make HIV level undetectable and greatly lower the risk of transmission; people with undetectable levels of HIV have no risk of transmission.

The fight against HIV/AIDS has seen victories in procurement of treatments, but the long lasting effects of the epidemic remain. Beyond the devastating physical effects of HIV/AIDS, discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community has drastically increased in areas such as the work place, housing, and access to health insurance.

For example, a 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of gay and bisexual men in the U.S. found 15% of them had received poor medical treatment due to their sexual orientation, and 30% felt uncomfortable disclosing sexual behavior to medical professionals.

Stereotypes spread the idea that homosexual activity is dirty and unnatural leading to widespread harassment of queer people. These longterm effects of these stereotypes are continuing to manifest in the lives of young queer people:

A global study in 2013 found that young men who have sex with men experience higher levels of homophobia than older men who have sex with men, and also face greater obstructions to HIV services, housing and employment security.   

This study demonstrates that even with growing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, queer interactions continue to be scrutinized and discriminated against. Despite current treatment and the ability to lower HIV to undetectable levels, the stigma against “having HIV” still exists.

A vaccine for HIV/AIDS would serve to counteract this institutionalized discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community; moreover,  it would honor those who fought for the development of a treatment throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis. The road to victory over HIV/AIDS is lined with activists who fought for and demanded the development of a treatment. ACT UP is one of the central characters in HIV’s history.  This group strategically planned protests and demonstrations to petition NIH for HIV research and funding. Their activism also fought homophobia which manifested itself in institutions such as the government and the Roman Catholic Church. Larry Kramer was one of the founders of ACT UP; labeled a “provocateur”, Kramer played a pivotal role in demanding government action to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. He led demonstrators in protesting the high prices of AZT and lobbied for government funding; he also employed other tactics considered to be outrageous and radical such as invading church services. 

Another prominent figure in HIV/AIDS activism is Colevia Carter, a black lesbian who championed LGBTQ rights through HIV/AIDS education. In 1984 she organized a conference for the role of women in combating HIV/AIDS, and she also led a program which taught incarcerated people about this disease. Another activist, Reggie Williams, an African American gay man, was the head of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention from 1988 to 1994. With the prospect of a HIV/AIDS vaccine, it is important to take time to recognize and appreciate these activists who brought us to this point.  

Overall, this clinical trial provides hope for new medical treatment of HIV/AIDS. It gives the possibility of reparation for decades long discrimination, and it would bring to fruition the dreams of HIV/AIDS activits as their efforts continue to be met with tangible results.

Edited by Blair Hoeting

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