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Gay Health Care is Coming Out of the Closet: The Male Body, the American Health Care System, and Public Policy in the Shadow of AIDS (KCL)

February 3, 2015 @ 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm


Professor Jonathan Bell (UCL)

This research seminar considers together questions of political economy and sexual politics to establish how liberal politicians, health care advocacy groups, and queer activists understood and debated health care policy at both the federal and state levels between the late 1970s and late 1980s. I focus on politicians and policy activism in two states that formed the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, New York and California, in order to understand how the health care of gay males fitted into wider debates not only about access to health care but about what ‘health care’ actually meant in public policy. Much attention has been paid to queer struggles for treatment of HIV and AIDS during the 1980s, but this article focuses on gay men’s efforts to reconcile a politics of civil rights empowerment with one of economic disempowerment.

The AIDS crisis emerged at a time when private insurance became harder to come by and as the state social safety net remained marooned in a gendered and racialized structure established by the New Deal. America witnessed the emergence of an economic closet constructed out of the growing mismatch between queer health care needs in a post-liberation environment and access to economic resources. I argue first that sexual liberation in the 1970s placed access to health services into wider debates about sexual politics, and that this inevitably brought liberationist notions of empowerment and the acquisition of civil rights into conflict with the politics of health care that prioritized illness and disability when assigning resources. Then, when AIDS heightened the link between sexual acts and disease, gay rights campaigners and their political champions in elected office were forced into a difficult struggle to maintain their rights agenda at a time when the nation’s health system remained wedded to the categorization of people in ways that denied rather than promoted social equality.

Finally, in arguing for the health rights of gay men, activists confronted deeply embedded gendered and racial hierarchies in social policy that challenged a rights revolution based on individual freedom at the same time as providing new dynamism to economic liberalism during a period of supposed conservative political ascendancy. These sites of analytical enquiry allow us better to understand how a rights revolution primarily focused on individual civil rights and the so-called ‘right to privacy’ actually spawned an equally important politics of public economic rights that gained – not lost – traction in the Reagan era.

Jonathan Bell arrived at UCL in 2014 as Professor of US History and Director of the Institute of the Americas. He is a historian of US politics, with a particular emphasis on American liberalism since the New Deal and the ways in which liberal politics have adapted to social change during the twentieth century. He has published widely in US political history, including a book on how the Cold War transformed American political discourse and policy formation on domestic issues during the Truman Presidency, a collection of essays on American liberalism, and a book charting the changing political complexion of California since World War Two.



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