Earlier this week, Grammy-nominated rapper DaBaby made headlines when he denounced gay people and people living with HIV/AIDS at a show in Florida.
As comments continue to come from fellow entertainers condemning his remarks, there has been little time dedicated to the actual facts about HIV and AIDS.
DaBaby said at the Rolling Loud Miami festival this past weekend, “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases, that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cellphone lighter up,” to try to get the crowd energized.
“Fellas, if you ain’t sucking dick in the parking lot, put your cellphone lighter up,” he added,
Video of his comments went viral online and he got both support and criticism from other musicians. He apologized on Tuesday night but then days later he’s released a video, “Giving What It’s Supposed to Give,” upsetting more people.
“Bitch, we like AIDS, I’m on your ass, we on your ass, bitch, we won’t go ‘way,” he raps in his new song, which was recorded prior to his initial comments, but he felt that he had to release it – instead of editing it first – to “stay true to yourself & DROP DAT BITCH in the height of the commotion.”
At the end of the video, a still reading “DONT FIGHT HATE WITH HATE” is shown in rainbow colors. “My apologies for being me the same way you want the freedom to be you,” text on the screen says.
There are many reasons DaBaby’s comments have been both serophobic (hatred or fear for someone living with HIV) and homophobic. But he is far from the only person to have perpetuate such ignorance, with people from the former President’s son to the former President himself furthering such notions.
As Elton John said in response to DaBaby’s ignorant remarks, “Homophobic and HIV mistruths have no place in our society and industry and as musicians, we must spread compassion and love for the most marginalised people in our communities.”
Here are some clear truths and realities about HIV and AIDS for those who don’t know or need a refresher.
HIV Is not a “gay disease”
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that infects and remains in the blood cells of someone living with HIV. It can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if there is a lack of treatment or other factors, but generally, and this was what happened in the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
In June 1981, doctors noted that five gay men in California — described as “active homosexuals” — had displayed similar, severe symptoms of what appeared to be unusual infections. Within a year of the discovery, medical professionals would declare an epidemic and name the disease AIDS.
This led to HIV and AIDS being associated with LGBTQ people, but the fact is that it is very likely that the virus existed for dozens, if not hundreds of years, prior to its discovery. The virus is believed to have first received introduction into humans via contact with a species of chimpanzees, and the CDC believes it may have jumped from chimpanzees to humans “as far back as the late 1800s.”
So HIV and AIDS have effected people of all identities and backgrounds for a long time, but early on, it was mainly the LGBTQ community and its advocates who had to commit to the work and activism that became necessary to save lives. While today, HIV and AIDS advocacy is no longer restricted to the LGBTQ community, it is still inextricably linked to LGBTQ history and culture.
But HIV is used to ostracize/discriminate against LGBTQ people
Unfortunately, the assumption that it was only effecting gay people or men who have sex with men led to many years where the response to HIV and AIDS lacked care and the necessary attention to curb it before it became a global issue. This was especially so under the administration of Ronald Reagan, who ignored the growing number of HIV infections for nearly his entire presidency.
“In the decades since, more than 700,000 Americans and 32.7 million people worldwide have been lost to AIDS-related illnesses – a heartbreaking human toll that has disproportionately devastated LGBTQ+ communities, communities of color, and underserved and marginalized people around the world,” President Joe Biden said this year, on the 40th anniversary of those first documented AIDS cases.
Studies have shown that when anti-LGBTQ policies are in place, Men who have sex with men were almost five times more likely to have HIV. Countries such as Uganda have used HIV as their reason for enacting anti-gay policies, to prevent the “gay disease” from spreading.
HIV can be transmitted through activities outside of sexual activities
When many people learn about sexually transmitted infections (STI), they presume that means that the virus can only pass through sex or body contact. But there are many other ways it is transmitted beyond sex.
Some people that are not living with HIV are very serophobic and fear any contact with people that are living with HIV. An alarming result from one study found that 28 percent of young adults admit they have avoided hugging, talking to, or being friends with someone with HIV.
A person living with HIV is not “contagious” or constantly “shedding” HIV onto others. Unlike COVID-19 and the flu, it cannot be be transmitted by casual contact. The most recognized ways to receive HIV is through unprotected anal sex between people of any sex or identity. Oral sex and non-penetrative vaginal sex have drastically reduced risks for transmitting the virus.
It is also very hard to transmit the virus without an exchange of blood cells. Although people have been charged with “attempting to transmit” HIV by spitting or kissing, there is little evidence that it’s possible to get the virus through closed mouth lip locking.
The CDC says flat out, “HIV is not transmitted through saliva.” Blood cells, semen, and breastmilk are the bodily fluids that would need to be exchanged for the virus to inoculate someone else.
So how else can it be transmitted? There are many possibilities, but most of them beyond sex are considered less than common. Breastfeeding is one example. There’s also the use or reuse of needles, syringes, and other drug infection equipment that may have been used by someone living with HIV. (Reducing new HIV transmission cases are part of the reason why many urban areas have needle exchange programs and other punishment-free methods of providing safe equipment for drug users.)
There are no known cases of someone getting HIV from receiving a tattoo or piercing, but the CDC believes it’s possible if equipment is unused. And especially outside of the United States, HIV transmissions through medical procedures such as blood transfusions or organ donations, generally due to a lack of resources or inadequate following of standards.
Many people don’t “choose” to get HIV
People that are living with HIV are usually blamed for getting the virus, shamed for living with it, or both, especially in media representation and anti-LGBTQ environments. This stems from generally sex-negative culture that shames people who engage in sexual activity. But since there are a number of ways to transmit the virus other than consensual sex, not everyone “chooses” to be, or knows they were being, exposed to HIV.
HIV transmission through sexual assault is a well documented method of inoculation, but scientists haven’t concluded whether or not being violently assaulted is “more” likely to transmit HIV than consensual sex.
As described by our previous method of inoculation, people can be born with HIV if their mother is living with it, or they receive fluids from someone living with it while pregnant or giving birth.
While very rare, people have also gotten exposed to HIV in the workplace and again, through medical care.
Regardless, becoming inoculated with HIV through these methods does not mean that some people living with HIV deserve more sympathy or respect than others. As David Duran wrote in the article “It Doesn’t Matter How I Got HIV” for The Body Magazine in 2014, “What answer is the questioner looking for? What answer would stop the questioner from casting shame upon me? …I don’t deserve any additional guilt or shame to be thrown my way because of a single moment in my life.”
Duran added, “Regardless of how I answer, my response will have an impact on how you view me.” People living with HIV are deserving of respect and consideration regardless of how they became inoculated with the virus.
There are many people that are living with HIV
The CDC believes that at least 1.2 million people were living with HIV in America at the end of 2018, which is similar to the number of people who identify as non-binary.
There are a number of celebrities and well-known figures publicly living with HIV. The most notable person to come out as HIV-positive this year was out Pose star actor Billy Porter in May. Another notable person who has shared their HIV diagnosis publicly for years was NBA star Magic Johnson, who went public with his diagnosis in 1991.
A number of late celebrities have lived with HIV and succumbed to AIDS or AIDS-related illnesses, both out and not. Out entertainers such as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, singer Sylvester, and Alvin Ailey lived with HIV and died of AIDS-related illnesses. Late Celebrities who were straight or not out include rapper Eazy E, tennis athlete Arthur Ashe, and actor Howard E. Rollins did as well.
But beyond famous people, thousands of new HIV diagnoses are made every year. You likely know or have a relationship with such a person, even if they haven’t disclosed their status to you.
It’s against the law to disclose someone’s HIV status publicly without their permission.
Except in specific law-mandated instances or when medically necessary, it is illegal to disclose someone’s HIV status under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), in addition to other, possibly more stringent state laws.
Because of the ostracization people living with HIV have faced historically, especially when it may out them as an LGBTQ person or lead people to presume they are one, people would not get tested out of fear that the information would get out. To combat this, state and federal law bar any disclosure of someone else’s status and go to extensive efforts to prevent the outing of someone with the virus or AIDS.
People who are reported as living with HIV have their information anonymized by medical bodies, who send them to public health officials or agencies such as the CDC to keep track to try to inform and get others tested who may be at risk.
A person who is living with HIV is also entitled to similar protections against discrimination as others living with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA and other laws prevent a person from legally being fired solely because they are living with HIV.
In some places, there are some legal mandates requiring people living with HIV to disclose their status with current partners, and even criminalizing people who don’t. This is called “duty to warn.” But as social ostracization lessens around HIV, the more people are becoming comfortable with sharing their status with partners and even beyond.
HIV itself is no longer a death sentence
Advances in technology have made it very possible for people to live with HIV without less of a quality of life compared to people who do not live with HIV. In fact, a new study found that early death rates for Americans living with HIV are no longer that different from people who are HIV-negative.
That means being inoculated with HIV may not increase someone’s risk of dying earlier than anyone else.
There is even a man known as “the Lisbon Patient” that lived with HIV to at least 100. There’s also several treatments that limit the progress and severity of AIDS-related illnesses now.
So no, living with HIV and even AIDS is no longer one of those infections “that’ll make you die in two to three weeks,” as DaBaby claimed.
But we are still in the middle of an epidemic, just like with COVID-19.
The AIDS epidemic is still ongoing. The difference between an epidemic and pandemic is that the former is a sudden outbreak of viral infections, while the latter is the stage when it has affected a wider population.
So while there are millions of people living with HIV/AIDS, the number of COVID-19 infections far outweigh that, and since coronavirus is much easier to contract or spread than HIV or any other STIs, that earned pandemic classification from the CDC within the first few months of 2020.
Still, the spread of HIV/AIDS is still considered part of an epidemic and there are still resources desperately needed to continue combatting the virus for it to become less common and to prevent widespread infections.
As with COVID, the initial government response was lacking. It cost lives.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a position he’s had since 1984. He was thus a major figure in early HIV/AIDS history, as he was the official under the Reagan administration tasked with managing the response, which did not put much resources toward curbing the spread of HIV.
Dr. Fauci became the target of queer HIV/AIDS activists, and similarly so when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. Still, he believes there is a major difference between how HIV/AIDS activists treated him, and why they were calling him out, versus the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers of today.
Dr. Fauci expressed earlier this year that he learned two major things from the start of the AIDS epidemic: “One of them is the importance of getting the community involved and dealing with the community and their special needs…if you look at the incidence of infection and the incidence of serious disease, including hospitalization and deaths, brown and Black people suffer disproportionately more than whites.
“We also learned the importance of fundamental basic science in getting solutions,” he explained. “Back in the early days, getting infected with HIV was a virtual death sentence for the overwhelming majority… it was the fundamental basic science of targeted drug development that allowed us to develop combinations of drugs… that ultimately completely transformed the lives of people living with HIV.”
But just like there’s COVID vaccines, there’s a very effective preventative and emergency treatment: PrEP/PEP.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) just became free to most insured Americans under the Biden administration’s direction, and several clinics and wellness services provide it to people that need them most.
PrEP is an anti-retroviral, preventative treatment for exposure to HIV that limits its ability to spread from a person carrying the virus to someone who isn’t. PrEP has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting HIV from sexual contact by about 99% when taken as directed.
Currently, PrEP is available in daily pill form by prescription for virtually anyone that is considered at “high risk” for receiving the virus, including men who have sex with men. There are other methods of providing PrEP being developed, such as an injection that could be more effective for much longer than the daily pill, and even a potential implant that would work for up to a year.
There is also post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which is available at almost all emergency rooms and from medical providers to prevent HIV transmission after an unexpected exposure to the virus has happened. PEP is taken within 72 hours of potential exposure for best chances of effectiveness.
These have helped make it more than possible to have sex with someone who has HIV without transmitting the virus.
The slogan “Undetectable = Untransmittable” refers to people who are living with HIV, but thanks to advancements in treatment, carry such a low amount of the virus that they are “undetectable.” This increases the likelihood that they aren’t passing on the virus to others, and those chances are even lower if one or both partners use protection or take PrEP.
And like there are anti-vaxxers, there are anti-PrEP activists.
There is a concerted effort to spread disinformation regarding PrEP and misconstrue it as ineffective or even dangerous. Why? Well, whatever the reasons, they’re likely similar to why anti-vaxxing and anti-masking activists work to spread disinformation about treatments and preventative measures that clearly work.
Anti-PrEP disinformation is often spread via social media. In 2019, several ads claiming that PrEP was dangerous were not only shown on Facebook, but “verified” by third-party fact checkers. The information was in fact not true.
LGBTQ and public health organizations tried to work with Facebook to get them removed, saying that the ads make false claims about PrEP which can put people’s lives in danger. It took over 50 LGBTQ, HIV, and public health organizations signing an open letter urging them to pull the ads for Facebook to slowly begin doing so in 2020.
PrEP has been found 99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission when taken as prescribed. One pill can bring protection for up to 21 days, although it is much less effective if not taken consistently.
Like almost anything, it is not perfect, but the risk of a “breakthrough” inoculation of the virus is very slim — and the more people that take it, and the less infections that happen, the easier it will be for science to find advancements in the treatment.
But we may be inching closer to getting a vaccine for HIV.
American Gene Technologies (AGT), a biotechnology company in Maryland, said in August 2020 that it got approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to move forward with trials for a gene therapy protocol that it believes will eliminate the virus in people living with HIV.