At a recent dinner party, a friend explained that she refused to travel to Paris because of the fear of Ebola. Another friend chimed in and said that he declined going to a social event because a friend of a friend had a relative who had just been to Africa. And the list goes on of people who, in some form or another, fear contracting Ebola.
Throughout American history, there are dozen of cases of hysteria surrounding the apparent outbreak of an epidemic, from recent fears over Asian bird flu to fears of cholera outbreaks in the 19th century. But the question of fear needs to be contextualized, not just in terms of alleviating Americans' paranoia (as Shepherd Smith recently did on Fox News), but rather by thinking about how various populations within the nation have consistently lived under a threat of infection.
For gay Americans, the very act of sex -- the most human act that leads to the creation of life -- meant death for generations of gay people. The outbreak of HIV in the early 1980s has left gay people on high alert for the last 30+ years. Many gay men continue to live with the threat of contracting an epidemic every time they engage in sex, whether it is with a lifetime partner or a one-night stand. Sex could lead to death, be it because sometimes condoms break or because someone is unaware of his status.
The fear of Ebola, thus, tells us more about one's social status and, dare I say, privilege, rather than about the disease itself. For many gay men, who have lived amid HIV "outbreak" for the last thirty years, the threat of Ebola perhaps has not rattled them as much as their heterosexual counterparts.
More to the point, when HIV broke out, the federal government did not react with the alacrity that it is today with Ebola -- in fact, they denied it. When HIV began to spread, the media did not show images of medical professionals wearing space-age hazmat suits; rather, it continued to show images of emaciated victims dying of the disease. And when HIV broke out, gay people did not have the privilege of concocting far-fetched scenarios at dinner parties in which they could potentially imagine the threat of coming in contact with an epidemic; rather, HIV had already infiltrated their communities, came into their homes, and took away their family and friends -- there was no "what if."
The threat of Ebola provides a peek into the politics of contagion. For many gay Americans, going on a date often leads to a conversation about epidemic diseases. That Ebola now compels other Americans to consider the threat of a contagious virus suggests how fortunate they have been. Instead of sounding off an alarm of hysteria, they might just want to listen to how the other half lives.
Jim Downs is currently completing More Than Just Sex: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books), and is the author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering (Oxford U.P., 2012)