Steven W. Thrasher has spent his career reporting on race, policing and HIV criminalization. Along the way, he has figure out that the vast inequalities of our society help deciding who is exposed to viruses, the level of care they receive, and ultimately who lives and dies. In his highly publicized new book, The viral subclass, Thrasher lays bare the flaws in our society and how disease has helped shape our nation and its notions of class and race. This is the story of how privilege can often mean survival. In this exclusive clip, Thrasher tells the origin story of the infamous US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, decades before the War on Terror, when dozens of desperate Haitians tried to flee their country during violent coup d’etat. It is one of the darkest and least reported episodes in recent history.
When I lecture on HIV criminalization, I often ask the audience, “When did the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay become a site of indefinite detention? Almost everyone who raises their hand and tries to guess is saying the same thing: that it happened in the weeks after 9/11, 2001, at the start of America’s war on terror.
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This is an error. The War on Terror has been started by George W. Bush, and which failed the two decades war has involved confining the alleged perpetrators under the dubious label of “enemy combatants” to the forty-five square miles the United States has occupied on Cuba’s southeast coast since the Spanish-American War in 1898. But the use of Guantánamo Bay as the site of prolonged and hellish incarceration on earth in the United States controls (but on which the federal government argues that US law is not necessarily to apply) was actually started by George H W. Bush, the forty-third president dad.
In 1991, when the elder Bush was the forty-first president, thousands of Haitians who had supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled their country after their democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup. Intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard en route to Florida, Haitians seeking refuge were barred from traveling to the U.S. mainland, which under international treaties would have forced the U.S. to accept them as claimants. political asylum.
But the United States could not send them back to almost certain death in Haiti. So the first Bush administration sent them to Guantánamo Bay, where they would be under American authority but would not necessarily have access to civil rights under American law.
Once there – while the Haitians waited to see whether their refugee claims would be granted or not – they were tested for HIV. As researcher Cathy Hannabach wrote, “While all Haitian refugees incarcerated at ‘Guantánamo’ underwent forced blood draws and testing, only HIV-positive women were subjected to reproductive intervention technologies. Without their consent and often even without their knowledge, HIV-positive refugee women have either been sterilized or forcibly injected with Depo-Provera, a semi-permanent form of contraception. Not all women can give birth to children, and not all people who can give birth to children are women; Yet the ability to do so is often (albeit unfairly) used as a defining characteristic of legitimate femininity. And at Guantánamo Bay, the United States used that definition to draw a hard line around what it meant to be a woman, and used eugenics to set Haitians apart.
The 1991 Haitian refugee crisis, not the September 11 attacks, was the triggering event that turned Guantánamo Bay into an indefinite detention space. Just as the Los Alamos National Laboratory hosted both the Manhattan Project and the Pathogen Research Database, America’s history of HIV is intertwined with American militarism. A fear of immigrants reinforced by surgical eugenics formed the legal architecture of how the base would later be used for accused terrorists. Forced sterilizations did not take place in Nazi Germany; they were perpetrated by the US government at the same time as twin peaks and The Oprah Winfrey Show were on the air. And when news broke in the summer of 2020 that women detained by ICE had undergone hysterectomies without their consent, it was clear that the age-old American practice of sterilizing black, brown and Indigenous women had still not caught on. end.
At Guantánamo Bay, the apparent justification for this forced sterilization was imagined viral purity. The mere possibility of Haitians winning their legal challenges and being allowed entry into the United States was reason enough, eugenicists seemed to believe, to sterilize any detained refugees they thought could bear and give birth to HIV-positive children.
Nearly three decades later, in 2020, when most international borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ICE deported people with coronavirus from its US prisons to Haiti, threatening to overwhelm the impoverished nation. And within a single week the following year, when the Haitian president was assassinated in his own home, the United States was considering giving its own people a third COVID-19 booster shot, when no one in Haiti had yet been vaccinated at all; Haiti was the only country in the Western Hemisphere without vaccines as of mid-2021. That fall, the Biden administration continued to exile Haitian refugees under Rule 42, a provision of the 1944 Public Health Services Act that allows federal authorities to expedite deportations during a pandemic. (and which the Trump administration has controversially invoked to deport migrant asylum seekers). In fact, like the Guardian reported, the Biden administration “deported more Haitians in weeks than the Trump administration in an entire year,” and the administration sought contractors who spoke Spanish and Creole to prepare Guantánamo detention facilities. Bay to an expected influx, once again, of Haitian refugees seeking asylum.
Viruses are used to determine who deserves to be allowed to cross various borders – of geography, gender, Americanness, dignity. By challenging the gender norms assigned to people at birth, drag performers transgress those boundaries on stage, and transgender people transgress them throughout their lives. While militarized nationalism often tries to reinforce gender boundaries around social constructs in ways that can be deadly.
Think about the body you live in: with every breath you inhale and exhale, the idea that your body has permanent boundaries between what’s inside and what’s outside turns out to be a fiction. Or, think about the boundaries of what it means to be American. “American” could refer to the United States of America, Where it could refer to any space between the Arctic Circle of Canada, at the top of North America, and Cape Horn of Chile, at the bottom of South America. This hard border that the United States tried to create at Guantánamo Bay between the worthy and the unworthy, and the wall that Trump tried to build to create a finite border between the United States and Mexico, and the idea that the new coronavirus lived perfectly outside the American border? They are all fiction. There are no sharp lines between races, between those living with and without the virus, between those in and outside the United States, between being American and non-American (or non-American), between men and women. Borders are myths, and while viruses are used to justify their necessity and marginalize those who don’t fit neatly on one side, viruses ironically refute them.
Truer than the fiction of borders is the messy reality of how life operates in the zone between binary markers – in the spaces where trans and queer activists and artists have dared or dare to inhabit. Border regions are spaces populated by migrants drawn to false national borders, citizens living within false national borders, non-conforming people who have the courage to live between gender norms, and people from all over the world speaking 167 different languages in Jackson Heights.
The first person in my outer social circle to die of COVID-19 was Lorena Borjas, a transgender immigrant from Mexico who made Jackson Heights, Queens, her home for decades. Lorena was fierce in her defense of people whose common destiny crossed the boundaries of nation, gender, and sexuality.
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Many people in the United States mistakenly believe that it is people like Lorena, who dare to cross such borders, who pose a threat to their health. But it is the maintenance of such hard borders that creates violence and chaos. Lorena has spent her life helping others through times of transition. But when the United States has violently maintained the kind of borders it has helped people cross, marginalized people have paid a high price – a price that could cost them their ability to reproduce, and even their very lives.
Of The viral subclass, by Steven W. Thrasher. Copyright © 2022 by the author and reprinted with permission from Celadon Books.
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