2019 Winner of the David Kirp 1965 Stonewall Prize

Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell '19E

Forgotten, But Not Gone: The HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Jackson, Mississippi

Departments of Anthropology and Sociology Honors Thesis

Excerpt from Chapter One:

“I am afraid that the reality that will develop in Jackson in the coming years will be frightening, even more frightening than has been projected,” Dr. Bryman Williams of the clinical training program at Jackson State University told the gathering of 250 attendees in a keynote address at Jackson Medical Mall. His sense of an impending catastrophe was hardly misplaced, and it is now unquestionably, even if belatedly, accepted that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Jackson is a public policy concern of unparalleled importance, with a likely impact of overwhelming consequence well into coming years. The epidemic in Jackson forces questions, Dr. Williams told the audience, regarding urbanization, changes in morality/lifestyle, agency and individuality, public interest and, perhaps most importantly, society’s obligation to those on the periphery — those individuals who have been stigmatized, discriminated against, ridiculed, and treated as less than full and equal citizens. Within the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Jackson, the individuals at the center of contestation are Black men who have sex with men (MSM)[1]. Indeed, the epidemic in Jackson requires us to ask whether Mississippi can discharge its responsibilities to this population without validating the persistent labels about itself as inhospitable to queer and trans individuals.

These are questions that are evaded at the state-level in Mississippi because they raise issues about the nature of the state’s most deeply rooted fears and anxieties and the role of repression and denial in the conduct of private morality and public affairs. Much of the concern around HIV/AIDS, of course, is inextricably related to the nature of the virus and the manner in which it is manifested. “AIDS requires,” Marshall Forstein wrote over thirty years ago, “that we take the most difficult, most emotionally charged concerns of our civilization and within the extremes of existing values, morals, social structures, and economics cut through to the essential tasks involved in halting a sexually transmitted disease” (O’Malley 1988, 7). The prolonged silence of Mississippi legislative bodies is, in large part, due to the unwillingness to address the issues of sexuality, especially homosexuality, and the structural forces that will be implicated if the epidemic is scrutinized.

[1] Men who have sex with me (MSM) – This term is often used when discussing sexual health. Researchers have come to use this phrase as a way to be inclusive of all men who have sex with men regardless of what their sexual identity is. It has become increasingly problematic because it obscures social dimensions of sexuality and does not encapsulate variations in sexual behavior and expression. I embrace it in this research because that is how most of the men I met identified.