(Thanks to ENC Communication Intern Matthew McGibney.)
In addition to being the victims of an epidemic, people living with HIV/AIDS throughout the 1980s were the target of mass misinformation, discrimination and fear. The decade witnessed a complete lack of leadership from the White House in confronting the massive public health crisis, with reverberations that continue to this day.
While people with HIV/AIDS still face prejudice in 2010, there has been a major cultural shift toward greater acceptance and understanding. One source of this shift can be found in another branch of the government, the Supreme Court. On July 26, people with HIV/AIDS joined the celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), thanks to the Court’s ruling in the 1998 case Bragdon v. Abbott. Bragdon concerned an HIV-positive woman, Sidney Abbott, who was denied service at her dentist’s office after she disclosed that she was infected. Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) took up her case all the way to the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled 5 to 4 in her favor. The decision meant that people with HIV/AIDS were covered under the ADA and could not, for example, be refused medical care, as long as the care-giver wasn’t put in danger. The Court had formally recognized the strife of the infected. Bragdon v. Abbott was the first HIV-related case heard by the Court, and while it did not change everyone’s opinions about people with HIV/AIDS, it did legitimize their suffering in a legal setting. By extending federal legal protections to people living with HIV/AIDS, the Court struck out at the taboos of the 1980s, and paved the way for a greater understanding of the disease by the general public. The case shows that the government does have a role in attacking prejudice. Official acknowledgment that certain things are wrong (for example, denying dental care to a HIV-positive person) can shine a light on ignorance. This light must be applied to other issues where government supported discrimination still exists, such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the gay blood donor ban. Cultural attitudes are changing, and this shift needs to be mirrored by the government’s reaction to its own discriminatory policies.