Illinois state Reps. Lamont Robinson and Greg Harris joined local advocates for an online discussion about the intersection between coronavirus pandemic and the HIVAIDS epidemic the afternoon of May 15.
The discussion, the third part in a series organized by the Chicago House agency, also featured Brave Space Alliance Executive Director LaSaia Wade and Chicago House CEO Michael Herman and was moderated by Chicago Reader Publisher ( and Windy City Times owner ) Tracy Baim.
Harris, who is also the house majority leader, mentioned a number of parallels, and significant differences, between the two crises.
"The first reaction is to stigmatize people who are sick, or we think may be sick, from COVID," he said, adding that many people regard the medical crisis with an "us vs. them" mentality. Those individuals, who regard the illness as something that happens to someone else, frequently cannot imagine that they themselves are at risk from the pandemic, so do not feel any obligation to change their lifestyle.
Harris, who is living with HIV, recalled that, during the AIDS crisis, gay men, at least initially, were similarly made into the "other" by society; furthermore, persons of color were gradually revealed to be disproportionately impacted. Harris added, "There were disparities in the services that were available, and the treatments that were available, just as we're seeing now."
Herman said, "It's a huge problem when shaming comes into it. When there is so much shame, it's impossible to move forward from a public health perspective."
Wade said that the transgender and gendernonconforming communities experience a number of unique health concerns with regards coronavirus.
"Chest-binding [for example] automatically affects respiratory problems for trans-masculine folks," she said. "…It's pressure on the chest, so when you're dealing with COVID-19, it's an automatic [consideration for], 'Should I have to wear this binding to do my work or face the possibility that I might receive some kind of violence if I don't?"
Wade also noted that trans women taking estrogen are at risk for blood clots. COVID-19
causes blood clots as well, and a combination of the two can be fatal, she added.
Robinson noted that numerous disparities still exist in accessibility to PrEP and HIV-testing for gay men of color.
"It's important as a legislator that I move forward funding for the African-American [HIV/AIDS] Response Act," he added, noting that the fund had recently been depleted. "That's a travesty for our community because it is used to stop the spread of HIV."
Robinson also mentioned his work for a South Side LGBT Center.
"If that center were in existence today, we would be testing [for coronavirus] there," he added.
Herman and Wade both spoke about preserving their personnel and organizational capacities to
mount robust responses to the pandemic.
"We need to make sure that our clients are taking care of their HIV and continuing to go to the doctor, even when they're told never to leave the house," Herman said. "How do we make sure
that the continuum of care continues to happen? Those kinds of services are extremely important."
Wade added, "I was not alive during the AIDS epidemic, but I have been alive during the crisis that trans people have been dealing with since the beginningbeing murdered left and right, having to fundraise for trans women and trans men to be buried, or having to fight for them to be buried with the names that they fought so hard to live in. Before this pandemic happened we were already in a crisis."
Wade praised her partner's emotional support, which she said has been crucial for her own energy to continue working as the pandemic unfolded.
"I have to be able to take care of myself, so I can continue to uplift," she added.