Demand Public Apology for UM President Schlissel's Homophobic Statement

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We, QAC, are demanding a public acknowledgment and apology for the statement made by UM-Ann Arbor President. 

Over the weekend, we were horrified to learn of the recent comment President Schlissel made on August 14th, 2020, at the University of Michigan’s Virtual Faculty Town Hall. At approximately 21 minutes into the posted meeting, a bizarre and homophobic microagression was made by Schlissel regarding HIV testing in the 80s and 90s during the AIDS epidemic. More specifically, this comment was used to defend the administration’s decision not to test students for COVID-19. According to Schissel, “Sometimes testing can give you a false sense of security. That happened in the HIV epidemic when people got a negative test, and they presented it to their sex partners and spread disease nonetheless.”

Most horrifying is that none of the faculty or staff members in that meeting (Provost Susan M. Collins, LSA Dean Anne Curzan, Vice President for Student Life Martino Harmon, and University Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani) stopped to correct his statement. Today, we are emailing to offer support to those who were hurt by his commentary and correct this misinformation.

History of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

On June 5th, 1981, the CDC published an article referencing a disease found among five white gay men in Los Angeles; what we now know as AIDS. On August 11th, approximately $6,000 was raised to fight the epidemic by film producer Larry Kramer. This was the only money raised that first year, and by the end of that year, there were 337 reported cases (130 of these “cases” had already died). Before the term AIDS was coined, the disease was primarily referred to as “gay-cancer.” This both stigmatized the gay community and the illness. 

The myth continued to spread that AIDS was only prevalent in the gay community, even though there was evidence as early as December of that first year that it was affecting Black children. In 1983, Larry Kramer published his essay 1,121 and Counting to call out the lack of government support and slow scientific progress in finding a cure (unlike with COVID, where we have sped up the scientific process and suspended rules and regulations to fastpass a cure (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/we-ve-got-be-able-move-more-quickly-pandemic-reality-covid-19-clinical-trials). 


In May of that year, the U.S. government finally allotted $12 million for AIDS research. But it wasn’t until 1985 when movie star Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS, that public perception of the epidemic began to slightly change. However, attention and funding for AIDS and HIV research remained inadequate ((https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/magazine/americas-hidden-hiv-epidemic.html)). 

The Context of HIV/AIDS Today

In the last forty years, researchers have gained a better understanding of a disease that has killed more than 700,000 since 1981 ((https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timelinehttps://www.kff.org/hivaids/fact-sheet/the-hivaids-epidemic-in-the-united-states-the-basics/). As of 2018, 42% of new HIV cases were among adolescent and adult African American and Black people (https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/racialethnic/africanamericans/index.html Black men who have sex with men account for the largest proportion of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. (26%) (https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/msm/bmsm.html). This comes after a long and continued history of the Black LGBTQIA2S+ community being ignored by the government and health infrastructure, despite the modern-day LGBTQIA2S+ rights movement being founded on the bravery and activism of Black transgender women and transgender women of color (https://www.aidschicago.org/page/news/inside-story/the-bigots-are-right-the-hiv-epidemic-among-black-gay-men-is-from-immorality?fbclid=IwAR04HOyMDB5TOHhILNaaIeFbdZjztjVvO2U_lt_1xsbuG2ImqWNgLXIWnRE).

A widely available cure has yet to be discovered. However, initiatives including increasing access to care to all folx (especially marginalized folx), destigmatizing HIV/AIDS, and more have helped reduce HIV-related health disparities (https://www.kff.org/hivaids/fact-sheet/u-s-federal-funding-for-hivaids-trends-over-time/). In 2012, the FDA approved PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, for adults who do not have HIV, but who are at risk for HIV to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV. Another medication called PEP (Post-exposure prophylaxis) is designed for adults to take when exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours (working in similar ways to Plan B). Additionally, combinations of medications called antiretroviral therapy (ART) work to reduce the amount of virus in one’s body and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus when taken as prescribed (https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline)

These medical interventions, developed within the last 35-40 years, are much more effective than their predecessors that existed during the peak of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. Living with HIV is no longer considered an automatic death sentence as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, and folx living with HIV are able to live full, healthy, sexually active lives when given proper and properly-funded access to prevention and intervention methods. These methods range from bolstering comprehensive sex education programs to include conversations around safer sex and medically accurate HIV education; access to free condoms in schools and other community locations, especially in lower-income areas; and access to affordable medical interventions such as HIV testing, doctors who prescribe PrEP and PEP appropriately, and medical professionals who prescribe and monitor antiretroviral therapies. 

Dangerous Impact

President Schlissel’s comment implies that HIV was spread primarily by queer individuals making irresponsible decisions with their sexual health, which ignores the longer historical context and trend of marginalizing LGBTQIA2S+, low-income, those with mental health conditions, and Black individuals in research and healthcare. Not only does this comment perpetuate the false public perception that HIV only impacts queer individuals, but it continues to perpetuate the myth that HIV is spread only through sex with an HIV positive individual (and that is what fueled the AIDS epidemic). This also further stigmatizes individuals who live with HIV, are receiving treatment for their diagnosis, and are living happy, healthy, and sexually active, responsible lives with their partner(s). 

Considering the larger context in which this comment was made, President Schlissel is scapegoating a marginalized community for the AIDS epidemic as a way of justifying a reopening plan that further endangers marginalized communities (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html).  

We demand that President Schlissel apologize for his homophobia and erasure of historical healthcare discrimination, and to rectify the damage that he continues to perpetuate against these communities by equating the COVID-19 pandemic with the AIDS epidemic and using this as a stance to justify the University’s decision to not widely test students.