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Assotto Saint & The AIDS Epidemic

January 15, 2020


In this video we are going to discuss Assotto Saint, his relationship to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the Reagan administration’s handling of the crisis. Saint was a voice of truth and power and a country that had left him behind. Assotto Saint was born in 1957 in Les Cayes, Haiti. As you can see Les Cayes is right here. He was born under the name Yves Francois Lubin. Upon moving to New York, Saint became a US citizen and began making a name for himself. He became known as a poet, editor and publisher, and a human rights and AIDS activist Saint became an activist after he and his partner Jaan Holmgren tested HIV positive just months apart from each other in 1987 Despite being awarded with the James Baldwin Award by the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1990 and receiving the 1991 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Poetry, Saints work was largely unnoticed and misunderstood by those outside of the black gay community. Jaan Holmgren died in March of 1993 and Saint was never the same. He died in June of 1994. At his funeral he requested the American flag be burned and that its ashes be spread on his grave. This was due to the failure of the US government and the indifference of American society to the epidemic of AIDS Now, This here is Ronald Reagan. He was the 40th President of the United States and served from 1981 to 1989. This means he was president during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Here is one of his most famous quotes on the issue of HIV and AIDS deaths in America. Oh….hmm. Oh, yeah. Reagan was notorious for his absolute silence on the matter. So let’s talk about Reagan’s failures during his two term presidency in regards to the AIDS epidemic. The crisis began in 1981 and spread quickly. Reagan however, did not even mention the word AIDS publicly until 1986 That’s five whole years later! Well, maybe he was working tirelessly behind the scenes…nope! It wasn’t until the epidemic was four years old that a committee was drafted to make a comprehensive plan of action in regards to AIDS This was also the first time Reagan had attended a session where the agenda included AIDS. Many believed that Reagan’s silence on HIV and AIDS stemmed from his devotion to the New Right. This group of major politicians, mostly modern conservatives, demonized homosexuality which led to AIDS being referred to as a gay disease. Reagan’s page on whitehouse.gov doesn’t even mention HIV or AIDS once. I suppose they didn’t see any accomplishments in that regard either. By the end of his presidency almost 30,000 people had died from AIDS complications. Now, you know, it’s easy to victim blame. Say, well why not just wear a condom? Why not get tested regularly? Well, the reasons stem back to homophobia, racism, and the overwhelming power of big pharma in the US. We have touched on the issue of homophobia briefly, but let’s break it down a little more. Homosexuality was still largely seen as immoral even within government policies. Propaganda labeled AIDS as punishment for homosexuality or as an issue of morality. Homophobia has persisted through the years over multiple platforms. Even the US government banned the use of federal funding for AIDS prevention on educational campaigns that promoted homosexual activity. This could have been as simple as promoting the use of condoms with a picture of two men. It didn’t help that sexual education was seriously lacking. Some places taught abstinence over the basic necessity of condoms and their uses. Employment and housing discrimination against black people made it very difficult for them to even have access to basic healthcare. This racism not only put black people living in America at a disadvantage, it was also dangerous to their health. Many could not make it to the doctor and would therefore walk around with the virus, not even knowing they had it. And unfortunately spreading it. And even if you had health care, the price of treatment was more than many could bear. Upon the approval of azidothymidine, commonly known as AZT, in 1987 a full year of treatment costed $10,000 per person. And after tireless efforts from many activists, ten years later the price had only dropped two thousand dollars So, considering all we just learned let’s turn back to Saint. He was one of the first poets to not only disclose his HIV-positive status, but also write about it in his work. Stations, his poetry book published in 1989, followed themes of immigration, sickness, mortality, corrupt government, and love. A lot of the poems included deal with the coming to terms of loss during the crisis and the fear of his own death. This is compounded by the criticism of Reagan’s presidency and the indifference of the American people to AIDS deaths. Outside of writing his own work, Saint founded his own press called Galiens Press. This was a mixture of the words gay and aliens, which was originally used in Saints band that was composed entirely of immigrants. With Galiens Press, he published many works of other queer authors of color. Saint said of his book, The Road Before Us: 100 Black Gay Poets, “Many, many of the writers in The Road Before Us are HIV-positive or have AIDS. Some have already died. AIDS is killing a whole generation of black queer writers. It is a major issue for us as black gay men.” Saint amplified the voices of queer authors of color at a time where was very hard for them to get published. Saint said, “I just do what I must do to break the silence.” Unfortunately Galiens Press is no longer in print. So, What can you do to carry on Saint’s legacy? First, we need to break down stereotypes surrounding HIV and AIDS. We need to have open discussions about these hard topics. Conversation about HIV and AIDS is still largely taboo. Thanks to advances in medication HIV is not the same deadly virus that it was in the 80s. These medications, however, come with a price. Atripla, one of the leading medications, can cost $30,000 per person per year and According to the CDC, the current cost of a lifetime of HIV treatment for one person is over $300,000. With over 1 million people in the US who are HIV positive, this cost is absolutely unacceptable. We need to combat this price and make this and other treatment options more affordable. We must continue the work of activists before us to champion for reasonable treatment costs. It is our duty now to not only further educate ourselves, but also to educate others. We cannot allow activists like Assotto Saint to be forgotten through time. Thank you so much for watching this video. Sources will be left in the description if you’d like to read more.

1 Comment

  • Reply Jorge Garcia July 2, 2019 at 1:11 am

    This is the content I subscribed for. Great job Hailey!

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