HIV Origins

For those who appreciate the Law of Unintended Consequences, let me offer AIDS.

By studying the HIV virus, its strains, and its known mutation rates, scientists have been able to track the virus back to its African roots.  While there are some gray areas, it probably went like this:

The Stonewall Riots, which happened in 1969, ushered in the Gay Liberation of the 70s.  Young gays across America celebrated their new freedom with a virtual orgy of liberated, multi-partnered sex, especially in the major cities of the west and east coasts.  Since athletic sex between (often) uncircumsized males opened a wonderful pathway for infections, sexually transmitted diseases spiked dramatically.  But, in our age of antibiotics, that was seen as a relatively minor inconvenience.


Except that the rise of cheap jet fares meant that an infection in New York could pop up in San Francisco with breathtaking speed.  But liberation and fast, cheap travel were modern and good, right?

Well, yes.  Except…

Except that a lot of those handsome young men also had discovered the Caribbean.  More particularly, they had discovered a sexual haven in Haiti.  Soon French-speaking Haiti had become almost a gay mecca for hip, well-to-do New York gays to vacation in.

But aside from a little miscegenation (non-procreative), that was no problem, right?

Well, yes.  Except…

Except that some of the most popular partners in Haiti were the young, educated Haitians who had just returned from Africa.

Walking back a little further, the ‘60s were the years of another kind of liberation in Africa.  Post-war, all of the colonial empires were crumbling.  New nations were popping up all over the continent and tens of thousands of Europeans were leaving.

Problem was, those Europeans had been not only the overlords, they had also been the administrators, the lawyers, the teachers, etc.  In some ways, their departure became a large-scale acid test of exactly what kind of colonies those Europeans had been running.

In some nations, where the overlords had trained up a cadre of young, African professionals, these were ready to step into the holes the Europeans were leaving.  In others, where the “natives” had been firmly suppressed, there simply wasn’t much of anybody to take over and run the countries.

Of the latter group, the poster child was the Belgian Congo.  It had been efficiently run, firmly exploited, and tightly controlled for many decades.  So when the Europeans left, the new government found itself utterly lacking in native professionals to get them on their feet.

Sensibly, they looked around the French-speaking world for young, educated blacks who might want to ship off to Africa for a few years.  In the Caribbean, they found Haitian professionals.

Educated but firmly repressed by “Papa Doc” Duvalier, they were ideal.  The new rulers of the Congo found a class eager for the adventure of helping to found a new nation.  They flocked to Kinshasa, where they found worthwhile work and a sexual culture amazingly free.

Once again, that was all to the good, right?  It got them out from under Papa Doc’s heavy thumb while giving them something useful to do.

Well, yes.  Except…

When the Haitians arrived, Kinshasa was a beautiful, rather European-looking city on the Congo River.  Just renamed from the too colonial “Leopoldville,” it was prosperous, fed by the traffic on the river.  That traffic was the original reason for the city’s existence.  In the nineteenth century, when the Europeans were rushing to divide Africa amongst themselves, their motives were purely commercial.  Upcountry, high up the difficult Congo River were stretches of forest where even the native Africans rarely visited.  But hidden away there were riches in the form of wild rubber plants and ivory-bearing elephants.

So the Belgians co-opted vast forces of Africans as laborers and porters.  They improved the river and imported steamers to carry their loot down to Leopoldville.  They created an enormous traffic from some of the remotest and unhealthiest places on earth.  Thousands and thousands of healthy, horny people went up and down the river.

Sometime around the turn of the century, before the First World War, some hunters were making their living in that region, probably in the south-eastern tip of the German colony of Cameroon (Kamerun).  They were going into the forests and killing chimpanzees for the bush-meat trade for all those porters lugging rubber and ivory down to ride the boats on the Congo.

One of them might have gotten bitten by a chimpanzee.  Or perhaps he got chimpanzee blood in a cut.  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that somehow a chimpanzee virus, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) managed to jump species and take up residence in a human being.  It’s probable that that crossover had happened before, perhaps many times.  In a small, isolated world, that would have been that.  He might have infected a few people with his new virus, and then it would have died out.


Except that that hunter now lived in an interconnected world.  Perhaps he had a girlfriend down river.  Perhaps his wife had a date with an ivory porter.  Whatever it was, HIV traveled down the new Belgian highway of the Congo to Leopoldville, where it took up residence and spread through a new, interconnected society separated from tribal life.

By the time the Haitians arrived, it was sufficiently widespread to infect a fair number of them.  They took it home in time to infect some freshly liberated gays vacationing in the Caribbean.  They, in turn, flew it home to the U.S. where, after a ten year incubation, it magically arose to appear in our headlines.

Now this might seem simply an unrelievedly tragic story with an overload of irony.  But let me add yet another turn.

Suppose that weird chain of unintended consequences had been broken.  Suppose, say, that the Haitians had never gone to Africa.  Suppose our gay community had thereby escaped its holocaust.  What would have happened then?

Of course, a lot of good people would still be alive. But AIDS would still have existed, spreading through Africa.  But then it would have probably seemed simply another of those strange diseases that keep killing Third World people.

What it would not have gotten, then, is those early headlines.  It would have been merely a footnote.  As a result, it would not have gotten millions in research money.  It would not have gotten new drugs and treatments.  In short, the problem would have been infinitely worse before we really noticed.  So perhaps all those links in the chain did humanity a real service.

Unintended Consequences.

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