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In-Depth Steven Thrasher Interview: How Racism, Capitalism, Borders & Ableism Create a “Viral Underclass”

Web ExclusiveAugust 02, 2022
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Image Credit: Portrait of Steven Thrasher by Molly Crabapple

In an extended interview with LGBTQ+ scholar and journalist Steven Thrasher about his new book, “The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide,” he lays out his theory and shares stories of the people he writes about. “A framework of a viral underclass, I hope, will help people to understand why it is that the same kinds of people keep coming into the paths and being affected by very different kinds of viruses,” Thrasher says. He discusses factors that create the conditions for unequal viral transmission, including racism, shame, borders, incarceration, ableism and capitalism.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with Part 2 of our interview with Steven Thrasher, LGBTQ+ scholar and journalist, professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and faculty member of Northwestern’s Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. His very timely new book is out today. It’s titled The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide.

Steven, congratulations on the release of your book, how timely it is. Your book, partly memoir, is also rich with research. Can you lay out how it offers a framework not only to understand monkeypox, which in this country now states of emergency in Illinois, in California, in New York, with New York City at the epicenter, and where we are, in Chelsea, the epicenter of the epicenter, as well as the COVID pandemic and, before that, HIV/AIDS disproportionately affecting certain populations? And talk about Michael Johnson in the midst of all of that.

STEVEN THRASHER: Certainly. Thanks so much, Amy.

So, a framework of a viral underclass, I hope, will help people to understand why it is that the same kinds of people keep coming into the paths and being affected by very different kinds of viruses. And this is something that happens all over the world, but particularly a dynamic that we see here in the United States. Also, why is it that becoming infected with a virus and harmed by it also moves people down class, is such an economic catastrophe for people here in the United States?

And so, this book began really with reporting I started for BuzzFeed more than eight years ago now with the story of a young man named Michael Johnson. He was known online with his Grindr handle and some social media by the name “Tiger Mandingo.” And he was a wrestler at a college in Missouri in 2013. And he was accused of transmitting HIV to several people he had had sex with, mostly who are white men. And I had no idea at the time that HIV transmission could be something that was criminally prosecuted. I didn’t know how that worked. And I had an editor who had written about and edited about AIDS for years, and he said, “I think you should go investigate this. This person is facing life in prison. It’s being treated like a murder.” And so, the initial coverage of that case was extremely sensational, and he was treated — it was written about all over the world as if this one college wrestler was causing HIV around the world. There are 40 million people living with HIV around the globe. And so, kind of heaping upon one person didn’t quite make sense.

And so, as I dug into his story, I found that there was kind of every disaster of Black America, every disaster of gay America in one story, that this young man was really being used as a scapegoat for all the anxieties about the ways that HIV moves. And he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison. And in part because of my reporting and a lot activism people did, he got out after about six years. But in that time, I learned that there are all these ways that treating HIV criminally doesn’t work. It makes people less likely to get tested. It increases stigma. And he was someone, I would say, like, really fits into something that we might think of as a viral underclass, the people who are likely to be infected by viruses, but once they are, they’re punished by the law, they’re punished economically.

And so, I kind of started from that case to think about a framework of a viral underclass, a term Sean Strub, an HIV activist, originally coined. And I used it to kind of think about why is it that, you know, these same people are being infected by viruses, sometimes they’re very different, like COVID, monkeypox, and it’s the same people. But also, it just does so much harm in the United States economically. So, for example, some of us have seen a story in the news about a person who was diagnosed with monkeypox, and their doctor told them that they had to quarantine for a month, and they broke down crying. I have a friend of a friend who’s a bartender who was also told he had to quarantine for a month. And so, you know, we’re crowdfunding to try to get them money. And this is a real problem that the United States will say you have this virus, now you cannot work for a month, which, of course, will throw people — excuse me, throw people off a cliff economically.

And so, a viral underclass, I hope, will help us see why it is that the transmission is happening, but also the ways that great harm happens. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Viruses are really great teachers in showing us that we’re interconnected, our destinies are interconnected, and so we need to deal with these things societally and in a group. But so often, particularly in the United States, we push all the responsibility onto the person who becomes infected and treat them like they’ve done something wrong. Even when, you know, there’s a virus like SARS-CoV-2 that’s affecting billions of people, we still try to frame it as: You did something wrong by yourself, and therefore you’re going to be punished in a class way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Steve, you wrote in a recent article for Prism that, quote, “More people are dying of COVID under Biden than Trump, and it didn’t have to be this way.” Could you expand on that?

STEVEN THRASHER: It’s been really frustrating to see how the Biden administration has mismanaged this pandemic. And, of course, the Trump administration and Trump himself personally were sort of cartoons of how badly one could manage a pandemic. But the Biden administration, in one sense, just carries on a lot of American traditions. And as I write about in my book, these engines that drive viral transmission in the United States cross party lines. Incarceration is a huge major one. You know, that people are coming in and out of jails constantly is one of the reasons why I think we have such high rates of disease like COVID-19 in this country.

But Biden himself has done a lot of — has made a lot of, I think, really bad choices. One is, having COVID himself right now — I don’t know if he’s tested out of being positive or not now, but he’s really driving that you have to get up and get back to work, which is not the thing that we want people to be doing, particularly with the risk that creates for long COVID. But also his budget priorities don’t reflect any seriousness about ending this pandemic. And I was just reading a tweet from a colleague last night pointing out that Biden did at one point say he was going to hire 100,000 healthcare workers in the United States. Never happened. Those people, you know, didn’t come together. What he was trying to do, when he got felled by COVID himself, was ask for funding for 100,000 more cops. So he moved from 100,000 healthcare workers to 100,000 cops. And that’s a really good analogy of where our budget priorities are in this country. Biden and the Democrats have failed to pass the last $15 billion bill that they said they wanted to pass to get COVID-19 relief to people. And because they failed to do so, people who are uninsured are no longer able to get free testing or treatment at the point of service. And that’s a huge driver of the pandemic. Those people are the most likely, research has been quite clear, on becoming infected with COVID, becoming seriously sick from it and dying from it. And so, we’ve just economically abandoned them and told them that they’re on their own. At the same time, the Biden administration has spent tens of billions on Ukraine. He was just asking for $37 billion for 100,000 more cops.

And I write in my book about kind of an analogy at a smaller scale about how that plays out. When George Floyd was killed, many people don’t remember this, or maybe they never knew in the first place, that an autopsy was done, and he was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. And so, had he survived his encounter with the police, maybe he would have gotten very sick or died from COVID. But I thought a lot, and I wrote about this at the time: What were the funding priorities of the city of Minneapolis? And Minneapolis spends about a third of its budget on police, far more than they spend on any kind of social welfare or housing or anything like that. And Floyd was one of the 40 million people in the United States who lost his job initially because of COVID-19. And so I think a lot about: What if a city like Minneapolis, with a Democratic mayor, a Democratic city council — the state has a Democratic governor — you know, what if they had spent money on housing and social welfare at that time? Someone like George Floyd might never have been in that store. He may never encountered the cops. He might still be alive. And if they had done things to get people the care and housing they needed, he might not also have COVID. But because of the way that we spend our money in this country, we create situations where people are likely to become infected by viruses and harmed by infectious disease, at the expense of spending money for cops. And cops, at the end of the day, for all the other problems with them, simply cannot provide healthcare or prevent transmission. They actually increase transmission by arresting more people and putting them in jails and helping infectious diseases move more in communities.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Steven Thrasher. His new book, just out, The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide. I wanted to ask you to talk about some of the people. You talk about them as patient zeroes. And also, as you speak, we are showing some of the images of the great illustrator, the artist Molly Crabapple, who shares these images in your book.

STEVEN THRASHER: Well, actually — thank you, and, yeah, Molly’s artwork is amazing.

I actually don’t — yeah, I encourage people not to use the phrase “patient zero,” even though it has been ascribed to people, because it’s very dehumanizing. In the excerpt that we had in The Atlantic, I kind of run through how I think “patient zero” ties into — going back to your segment today on 9/11, I think it actually builds upon “ground zero.” It creates the sense of an idea that people are a nuclear bomb, or there’s some kind of threat that is harming others.

But it’s a phrase that’s been used towards originally a man named Gaëtan Dugas, who was a French Canadian flight attendant and was unfairly blamed for bringing the HIV virus into North America. And as Richard McKay and others have pointed out, and really good biological evidence has been shown, as well, HIV had been circulating long before that. Dugas was very unfairly blamed, and it was totally a mistake. He was being interviewed by people researching what became HIV, and the researcher was primarily working in California, and he labeled this person as being outside of California. It was the letter “O.” It was a complete accident and mistake that it got thought to be a zero. But often we think of these people who are unfairly, you know, said, “You bring a disease into a community.” The community is imagined to be pure. And it’s a very ableist idea and a very eugenic idea that viruses aren’t circulating. And so, harm is really and responsibility is put on these people. So I write about him in the book.

I write a little bit about Robert Rayford, who was a Black teenager who died in the late 1960s in Missouri, and he probably died of AIDS. His death was so unusual that samples were kept, and they were tested later, and he had — he tested positive for HIV antibodies. And then I also write about a friend of mine, an actor named Olivier, who I loved very much, who was a really wonderful person. And I didn’t know how much he had had to live with HIV as a secret until after he died.

And so, I think, in the book, and particularly around when we talk about someone as a patient zero, that we’re putting all this responsibility of what is a social virus in a social process — viruses don’t magically show up in people like storks. They’re, you know, moving between us, and we have to negotiate them. But we will often say this person brought it in, and therefore we’re going to just think about how to blame them.

And we see it so unfairly in news media. I break down in the book, as well, the really ridiculous experience of seeing news stories on reputable news organizations — CNN, ABC News, places like that — about COVID parties and saying young people are having COVID parties, they’re deliberately getting each other sick. It didn’t happen. It’s been totally debunked. The news organizations didn’t apologize or retract their stories. But that kind of framework is really popular. And I often teach — actually, in my classes, Amy, I often show the video that you narrate that Al Jazeera did breaking down Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. And the idea of a patient zero is a really helpful tool in that, in saying there’s one common enemy; we can blame this person for this process that is societal. But it’s much easier for news media and government to say we can just blame this one individual, rather than deal with the complicated but important work of dealing with how viruses transmit more broadly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Steve, you also — you mentioned previously ableism. Can you talk about — and you have it as one of the factors in the unequal virus transmission. Could you talk about that?

STEVEN THRASHER: Certainly. Ableism, for me, has been one of my real learning edges over the course of the pandemic. And disability activists have given us really great ways to think about how to manage a pandemic and how to negotiate life, even in intimate ways, while also being very cognizant of health. But we often think that people who are sick are bad, and we’re constantly conflating — certainly able-bodied people are — that being not sick is good, and being sick is bad. And this crosses parties. Donald Trump did this. You know, when he got sick with COVID, he was really, really big on trying to show a bullish personality and show that he could get back into the saddle as quickly as possible. Joe Biden is doing exactly the same thing. He was unmasked in his photograph, you know, being taken by the White House staff photographer. He said he came back real quickly, he had a rebound, or just a false negative. And he’s really trying to say, you know, “I’m a good person. I can beat this.” And the framework of “I can beat this,” it happens in all kinds of health settings, particularly on cancer. But with viruses, we often imagine that the weak get viruses and are sick from them, and the strong are virtuous and survive them.

And in the chapter of my book where I deal with this the most, I write about two people who are dear to me. One is Alice Wong, the disability activist, who has a really great book called Year of the Tiger coming out. And Alice herself is recovering from a recent hospital trip, but has been a really, really great resource for me to understand the ways that ableism, and the idea that people are disposable if they’re not strong enough, is a big part of our society. And I think we can see this with different kind of viruses. With HIV, gay people were considered weak and not, quote-unquote, “manly enough” to survive. Disabled people and elderly people living in congregate care settings at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic were already considered disposable enough that they should be out of sight. And so, when they started dying, there was not as much concern about that as there was when it was the idea that, you know, the, quote-unquote, “general population” of workers could be affected. That’s when the U.S. government gets more involved.

And I also write in the chapter about a man who was very close to me, his name was Ward Harkavy. He was my editor at The Village Voice. And he had this really cartoonishly disastrous experience of going from a tooth infection to having to recover in a nursing home, at the same time here in New York state when the Cuomo administration was sending people living — sending people with COVID into nursing homes to recover. And that’s where he got the coronavirus, and that’s where he died.

And I think in the book a lot about how Tish James had in, I think, 2021, early in the year — had a report showing that there were thousands of people who had died of COVID in nursing home, that the Cuomo administration had tried to cover up. And it made very little — made very few waves in the media or in political action. But then, when the report came out about Cuomo sexually harassing women, which, of course, should be a impeachable offense, as well, that did get a lot of media attention. And I think that the reason that that one did, and elderly people dying in nursing homes didn’t, is ableism, is that we will think that old people aren’t contributing to the society, they’re a, quote-unquote, “drain” economically on resources, and therefore they don’t get the kind of care they deserve. But I think that, you know, thousands — more than 10,000, I think — people dying in nursing homes, having that covered up, that should be an impeachable offense for the governor of any state, particularly one who was so feted by the Democratic Party and media for being a leader on the COVID-19 pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Lorena Borjas and why she’s so significant? We mentioned borders in the first segment, but if you can go more into migrants and disease and how often they are portrayed as the carriers of disease?

STEVEN THRASHER: Yeah. Lorena was somebody I only met once, years ago. But she was very close to a frequent guest of yours, Chase Strangio. And I remember Chase tweeting in those early days of the pandemic that she had died. She was the first person in my outer social circle that had died. And I’m kind of getting goosebumps thinking about her, because she was just such an extraordinary person.

Lorena had immigrated from Mexico. She wanted to live as a trans woman. She had been sex trafficked. She had been kept in really bad situations. And she had this extraordinary life. And she gave everything that she had back to her community. She lived in Jackson Heights. And at the time, I actually remember watching Democracy Now! around these days, where Jackson Heights was the epicenter of the epicenter of that pandemic within New York. And Lorena lived in one of these zones where you saw lots of people who are immigrants, sex workers and people who had gotten out of jail.

And Lorena was known for a few things. One was always having her cart. Everyone talks about how she would show up at the ACLU or where Chase was working or different places with stacks of papers of people who needed trans legal help. And she was one of the people that really made the connections between transgender people, the LGBT community and migrants and the ways that the criminal justice system particularly harms these communities in overlapping ways. So she was very worried that trans people would get arrested under what colloquially is called the “walking while trans” law, that the NYPD will see trans people and assume that they’re sex workers and lock them up. And, of course, that is dangerous for all kinds of reasons: police violence; trans women are often kept in jails for men, and so they’re extremely vulnerable to sexual violence, which is harmful on its own, but it’s also a mode of viral transmission; and, of course, many of these women were also migrants, and so they were very very vulnerable to the Obama administration’s — I think it was called the Secure Communities program, that was having the federal government go into local jails and find people on immigration violations and deport them. So, Lorena really wanted to stop all this violence before it began. She tried to keep people from getting arrested. But anytime any trans person would get arrested in New York City, Lorena was notorious for showing up at their bail hearing. She didn’t even have to know the person. Anytime she heard them, she would gather up a bunch of other trans people, and they would go to the courthouse and say, “Your Honor, you know, this person is not alone. They have a community. And we’re going to help them.” And they would raise money to get them out of jail. They were not able to save everyone, of course, but they got many, many people out of jail in that way.

And so, Lorena got the COVID virus early on. She died early on. I think it was in March of 2020. And I found out a lot about her after she died, including that she had been living with HIV for decades. And even though she was herself in and out of the hospital those last few days of her life, she was still trying to raise bail money to get people out of Rikers, because she already recognized that Rikers was going to be one of these places where other people would get COVID-19. And Lorena tried to navigate the borders of the United States, of her own gender identity. She would give out sterile syringes to people on the streets. She would give out food and condoms to people on the streets. And so, she did her part to really help stop viral transmission, hepatitis, HIV, things of that nature, by giving people the things that they needed.

And I kind of end the book thinking about what it means when we lose someone like Lorena. You know, she was such a pillar of the trans Latinx community, AOC called her the mother of the trans Latinx community of Queens. And so, I think about, you know, what does it mean when that pillar is lost, because Lorena is not out there anymore giving out condoms and sterile syringes. And so that has an effect on viral transmission. And the people in her community see what happens to someone who really speaks up like her. You know, even she can’t get the care that she needs. And so, it’s a huge loss for the people who knew and loved Lorena personally. Her Zoom funeral, which was the first one I went to — and it felt like such a strange thing to go to a Zoom funeral back then — had about 400 people on the call. But she also — you know, her death has such a cascading effect on the community around it, because she did so much for those around her. But it’s been a joy, even though it’s a really sad story, to hear the stories about Lorena. And anyone who knows her can tell people who didn’t just the most wonderful tales about what a wonderful person she was.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, Steve, we only have a couple of minutes left, but I wanted to ask you about another chapter in your book, in the factors for unequal viral transmission, and that is capitalism itself. Could you talk about that?

STEVEN THRASHER: Well, capitalism is like the constant between different presidential administrations and different countries. And capitalism and austerity both play such a role in viral transmission. So, when I was writing about Michael Johnson — and so much, appropriately, reporting and thinking and research in the United States goes around racial disparities and looks at the long legacy of racial disparities going back through the Atlantic slave trade. But I actually had kind of an aha moment when I was doing research in Greece. And I was trying to be out of the United States and clear my head a little bit on a fellowship, where I wrote about police violence, where a Greek activist was kicked to death by a mob that included several police officers. And police killings are quite rare in Greece, when that hadn’t happened for 10 years. But I found out the person who was killed, not that far from where I’d been working, was an HIV-positive activist named Zack Kostopoulos. He was gay. He did immigration work with — as a volunteer.

And there, in this completely different setting, I got to see how capitalism and austerity drive viral transmission. Greece had had, until 2008, 2009, really successful campaigns for reducing HIV transmission and hepatitis, both which are primarily driven there through injection drug use. They had really innovative and great and not particularly expensive programs to get sterile syringes to people on the street and outreach programs. And then, when Greece had its economic crash, the European Union came in and enacted severe austerity on the state. And they cut all these programs, including the programs that prevented HIV transmission. And within just, I think, four years, the rate of HIV had increased 3,000%.

So, capitalism, the way that it sort of extracts everything from every person and tries to optimize everything and enacts austerity and takes resources away from public health, is a driving force of how transmission happens. And at the other end, you know, we will get these amazing drugs around the world. ARVs, antiretrovirals, for HIV have saved millions of lives. But they were not even available in countries in Africa for the first seven years after they were developed in the United States. Same thing with COVID-19 vaccines. You know, we’ve developed a bunch here in the United States. Many countries in the world don’t have them. The U.S. is now actually in the opposite effect — the opposite position now with monkeypox, because we’re waiting for the JYNNEOS vaccine, which I believe is developed in Norway but being produced in Bulgaria, and so we’re waiting to get it from another country.

And ideally, you know, anytime a laboratory or an institution creates something that can save lives, we should just share it and have everyone in the world make it, so we can save as many lives as possible. But the need for capitalism and the need for profit means that people can wait months or years to get vaccines, and they pay for that with their lives, at the worst end, or at least with — you know, with great pain. It’s been very frustrating seeing how many people are waiting for monkeypox vaccines. They don’t get them. Then they become positive with monkeypox, and they have to suffer and often pay a huge price economically. And a lot of this is just because we’re trying — we, as a society, are allowing corporations to hold on to profit as a much more important thing than saving lives and protecting lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Thrasher, what a remarkable book, and we’ve only touched the surface. Steven Thrasher is an LGBTQ+ scholar and journalist. His new book, The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide. He’s professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, faculty member of Northwestern’s Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. To see Part 1 of our discussion with him, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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