Journalist and academic Steven W. Thrasher joins the show to discuss his eye-opening new book The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide. Steven explains the idea of the viral underclass – those most societally vulnerable to disease transmission – and the criminalization of the sick. We also discuss his comparison of COVID-19 and HIV responses throughout the book and his positionally as a Black and queer writer discussing disease.
The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. We will discuss the book on November 30th with Mariame Kaba.
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*Due to the nature of advertising placement, these timestamps are not 100% accurate.*
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Dr. Steven Thrasher. Stephen is an author, professor and journalist who has written for publications ranging from the Village Voice to the New York Times from the Atlantic to Scientific American, and The Guardian and many, many other publications. Dr. Thrasher’s new book is his first it’s called The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide, and it exposes the vast inequalities between those who typically contract and survive viruses and those whom viruses more easily target and kill. We talk about the systems that create a viral underclass. Steven’s unique experiences as a black and queer writer talking about disease and the way his own writing intersected with a COVID 19 pandemic. Remember, our book club pick for November is prison by any other name the harmful consequences of popular reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. And we will be discussing the book on Wednesday, November 30. With Mariame Kaba. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on today’s episode of The Stacks can be found in the link in the shownotes. It is the week of Thanksgiving. So I just want to say a huge, huge thank you to the stacks pack. That’s our incredible community of lovers of this podcast and lovers of books and people who are willing and able to put their money behind an independent podcast that they love. I could not make this show without The Stacks pack. And so I am forever grateful that you all allow me to put this nerdy bookish show into the world every single week. You also allow me to employ two incredible team members Christian who is our editor who I am beyond thankful for. And Lauren, who helps me basically get everything done. So if not for The Stacks pack, there would be no the stacks. So thank you, thank you, thank you. If you are listening to this right now and you want to support this incredible community and earn perks like a virtual book club, bonus episodes, a discord discounts on merch and all of that jazz, head to patreon.com/the stacks. And join us again, just a huge, huge thank you from the bottom of my heart to every single member of The Stacks pack. Okay, enough of the thank yous, let’s get to the conversation between myself and Dr. Steven Thrasher.
Alright, everybody. Welcome to The Stacks. I am really excited. Today I’m talking to author and journalist Steven Thrasher whose book is The Viral Underclass, if you have been listening to the show or following me on social media, you know, I picked it up a few months ago and frickin’ loved it. So I demanded that Steven, come to The Stacks. So welcome to the podcast.
Steven Thrasher 2:44
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk with you.
Traci Thomas 2:47
I’m so excited to talk with you. Before I ask you a bunch of questions we’ll start where we always start in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell folks about the book in 30 seconds? We’re gonna spend the rest of the hour talking about it in detail. So this is just a primer. So for people who aren’t familiar.
Steven Thrasher 3:01
So The Viral Underclass began as an investigation, I wrote into the criminalization of HIV and AIDS and understanding the social factors for why HIV is criminalized, why people get AIDS, and then expanded to understanding how that deals with racism and ableism. And when the COVID 19 pandemic hit, I started seeing that the same areas of the country and the same kinds of people were becoming infected with COVID, which was a bit surprising, because it’s a very, very different virus than HIV and behaves differently. And so the book is about 12 Different social vectors that I’ve identified that explain why, and how the same kinds of people become infected by very different kinds of viruses, largely told through the stories of different people that I’ve interviewed and got to meet along the way. Okay, you did a perfect job, because you set up like nine topics that I already had notes that I wanted to talk about. So thank you, you teed me up perfectly? Well, you just sort of explain the idea of what a viral underclass is, or what that what that term means to you. Sure, I first heard the term originally from an activist named Sean strube, who used it to talk about when HIV is prosecuted under the law. And what he was identifying was that in the US, we don’t normally explicitly create laws around immutable characteristics. It has happened. Other times in history where around miscegenation laws, or certain racial laws were racist, explicitly named, but it’s usually not explicitly named, it’s usually happens implicitly. But with HIV laws, it’s very explicit. It says that people who are living with HIV are living under a different set of laws and everyone else and Shawn illustrates it by saying even infants who become HIV positive before they’re born, for the rest of their lives are going to set under a different set of laws. were things that might seem very normal to everyone else. Things like you know, having sex or getting arrested or spitting, things like this will just be prosecuted and living under a different set of laws. I heard activist using it kind of a different way, when I was writing about the Michael Johnson case, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, where they were saying either effort efforts to either mitigate change or abolish these laws could create a viral underclass. And I use it in sort of a third way I use it to understand how and why through class dynamics, certain people become infected or disparately impacted by certain viruses. I also use it to understand kind of class dynamics of the world, we’re particularly of the United States, and the ways that becoming infected with a virus in the US makes you much more likely to move down the economic ladder and to have debt and economically harmful things happen in your life going forward. So that’s kind of how I use it, I had been working with the phrase a little bit in my dissertation research around the criminalization of HIV, but then when COVID happened, I use that as an analytic to start looking at how different viruses intersect with people around the world. And in the book, I’m primarily talking about HIV, and COVID. But I’m also writing a little bit about influenza and hepatitis. And since the book came out, even though it’s only been out for a couple of months, I’ve been using it a lot to think about and process, the monkey pox epidemic that’s happened, particularly here in the United States.
Traci Thomas 6:29
Yeah, I mean, so one of the things I’m fascinated about is, you know, the work that you have done on HIV, and then, you know, you start working on this book, and COVID, how closely did you start working on this book before COVID was a thing? Or did you always know that COVID was going to be a part of this book?
Steven Thrasher 6:48
No, COVID really interrupted in the long and messy process of writing a book. I had, I’ve been now I guess, at the time where it was being developed. I’ve been writing about the Michael Johnson case for about six years. And it had become the basis of my dissertation that I wrote in American Studies at NYU. And I really was understanding the criminalization of HIV as illustrating a kind of systemic racism, homophobia that dealt with homophobia, too. But it was really about understanding systemic racism and the playability of the Black Buck stereotype in American culture, which I’ve seen become even more appliable with Herschel Walker. And as we’re talking to one another, that looks like it’s heading to heading to a run off. And I didn’t know I finished my book, I had become a professor at Northwestern. Often when you become professors, you have to write academic books, right, which some are really wonderful. But a lot of them don’t get widely read, and are very densely written. But it’s part of the process to get tenure that you have to write academic book. But I found that when I arrived at Northwestern that since my home line was in the journalism school, I could actually write a trade book. So I was, yeah, so I was starting to think about what’s the book and look like? Is it really going to be a story about this court case? Is it going to be about how it interacts with the Black Lives Matter movement, I was at sort of an impasse with some possibilities for the book, when I signed with my current and wonderful agent, Tanya MacKinnon. And then COVID hits, and nobody knew what was going to happen. I didn’t know, you know, am I still going to have a job at Northwestern as the last person hired? Is there still going to be publishing? I mean, this is a you know, it’s like, none of us knew what was gonna happen. And Tanya said, I, very smartly, she said, I think people are gonna run out of things to watch on Netflix, and they are going to start buying books, which is exactly what happened, you know, sales went up. And she had, she had not done any. She hadn’t really been in touch with people yet. She hadn’t done any business. And you know, this first couple of weeks. And she said, Send me your dissertation again. And she looked at it and said, look at that, you know, the last chapter is called The viral underclass, that’s sort of where it ended up in my somewhat technical dissertation. And she said, use that as an analytic to think about how you could write about the COVID 19 pandemic. And that, you know, can we sell this as a book, that’s not going to be a flash in the pan COVID Book of what she predicted also accurately that there would be a bunch, I think, probably unfortunately, the best selling of them is Robert Kennedy’s anti vaccination book. We’re gonna get here to Robert Kennedy, Jr. I should say, his father. And, you know, she said, think about that as a way that you could use an analytic and so that’s what I kind of did. I stepped back and said, what, like, what is it about the class dynamics and this analytic this way of thinking that can help explain why these two very, very different viruses are wreaking havoc in a kind of predictable also the people, even though their modes of transmission are very different, the timescale they happen across is very different. HIV and AIDS are very slow acting, relatively speaking, compared to COVID, right 10 to 15 years to get seriously sick or die, as opposed to we’re seeing people sometimes die in less than two weeks, you know, with COVID. And so I sat back and rewrote a new proposal in about two weeks, kind of thinking about what are the like, what are the vectors, what are the things that are bringing this together, and some of it was very, very much about prediction. And I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t know how I would be able to report about COVID. But I left open the lines of how these vectors would potentially lead me there. And for me, it was also a bit of I would say, personal salvation, in that I appreciate being able to write through things. And so I did not have a I started writing for Scientific American a few months later, but I didn’t have sort of a stamping outlet at the time. And so I was very excited when you know, celadon saw what the book could be my editor and publisher of Jamie rave, and then gave me the resources to to write this book. And I really appreciated having a way to direct my energy, and to be able to try to chronicle what was happening around me, I was alive when barely, you know when AIDS cases started to be known in the US, but there was a child through it. And I’d written about that pandemic in a very different time. You know, from its early years, I wrote about it after medication was available, and how it was still affecting a viral underclass. But I appreciated having the ability to in real time be able to try to document and preserve some of what was happening. And I knew that I was going to write about it in three registers, I wanted it to be journalistic, somewhat scientific and scholarly drawing on my research on HIV and AIDS, and also memoir and personal, the mix ended up being different. And I remember when when you posted about it, you said you thought that the mix was a little off. And I thought that it wasn’t, I thought that actually I was going to be more of a background character. But because of how personal including the death of my, you know, one of my editors ended up writing a lot more personally. And a lot of that was very frightening and difficult for me. But I’m really glad that I have the ability to be able to, to be able to write about these things together. So that’s kind of how the book came together. And the map for it started out with like eight vectors that became 10. And eventually, there were 12, my editors were very kind and giving me-
Traci Thomas 12:46
I love the vectors. I mean, let me just read off the vectors to people just so that they know because these are kind of like the chapters in which you frame the book. And I think, to what your point what what you were saying before, what’s really interesting, about about how you framed it as like, for things that come later, or for the next virus or the next pandemic, this framework still holds. And like you were able to use it and go backwards to for other things that had come before HIV. And I think that that’s really what is so powerful about the book is like the framework holds, and the diseases and viruses they may come and hopefully go but like that, that this makes sense. And so the vectors that you presented were racism, individual shame, capitalism, the law, austerity borders, the liberal carceral state, unequal prophylaxis, ableism speciesism, the myth of white immunity and collective punishment. So we won’t get into all of those things. I just wanted to let people understand what the vectors were. I want to go back for a second and talk about Michael Johnson. Because we mentioned him a few times, he was a young man, a college student who was HIV positive, and was convicted to to, like 30 year sentences for infecting other people with HIV. And obviously, that is a criminalization of someone’s sex or sexual activity. But I want to know why this story to you felt like the right center for the book because it you go back to it, you know, throughout the book, you you bring in pieces of the story throughout from the beginning to the end. So why this story? Were there other stories that you thought would be that could have done that work? Or was this one just like, This is it?
Steven Thrasher 14:39
For me, it was always this as it made my editors. Initially, I think they wanted me to consider having that role filled by living in a boathouse who I do try to write about but I just didn’t know her story as much and I very much at a very much credit Cecily Van Buren Friedman, one of my close as editors on the book at celadon had a really good idea, I won’t give it away. But you know, but she had a really good way of intertwining Michael’s story and learning a story at the end of the book, which I think works. Yeah. But for me, this was always the story I’ve written about interracial sex for most of my adult life. And my parents were an interracial couple. It was illegal for them to get married when they met in Nebraska. So I’ve long thought about the ways that interracial sex and interracial desire are criminalized along various axes, for much of my writing career, and I think that’s actually going to have a lot to do with with my next book, too. And it was through that, that a really wonderful editor named Mark shifts, who had written about HIV for decades, I think, since it was called Grid before it had a name was coming in to start an investigative unit at BuzzFeed News. And he came to me about this tiger Mandingo case, as we called it early on, and is it still called in lots of ways that this young man whose screen name on Grindr, which was relatively new, or it was certainly new to public conversation, you know, use this this name, Tiger Mandingo, that, of course evokes lots of fears around durational sex, and that he had been arrested and accused of transmitting and exposing people to HIV. And one of the details that has survived various ways I’ve written about this over the years, and I think it was marks for observation is that there were stories about him in Australia, like, the way that he flared up in global Viral News was as if he posed a menace to the health of the world, and HIV at the time, like 35 to 40 million people globally, were living with HIV, there’s nothing about any one person that you can blame in this way, certainly not an American college student. And so from that time, Michael entrusted me to tell a story, I met with him in jail, very in a very different way than he had been presented in the news. And I use sort of news and quotes because the stories are mostly just regurgitation of prosecutors talking points, no one had interviewed anybody. But when I met him, he was not intending to give anyone HIV, he’s always maintained that he told people that he was HIV positive. But certainly he was not intending to give anyone HIV. And as I learned about this, I didn’t know about the subject at all, that the laws themselves are a huge barrier to HIV prevention, and what we want with HIV, or monkey pox, or COVID, or anything, that’s infectious, we want people to feel safe coming forward to know that they’re not going to be punished, to know that they’re going to be supported. Right, this is a real ongoing problem with COVID. And with monkey pox, you know, if people know that they’re gonna have to stay home for five or 10 days, and not get paid. They, they’re, you know, choices between hunger and homelessness, you know, not paying your rent, on the sucking it up and trying to hide your symptoms, that’s what you’re going to do when you don’t have economic support. You know, we want people to feel safe coming forward. And so these laws make it difficult to do. So when he eventually got prosecuted and sentenced to as he said, like it was, originally to 30 year sentences, the judge let him serve them concurrently. So that they, you know, would only be 30 years or three years, you know, the HIV prevention people I worked with in that town, like, have an enormously harder time getting young black men who are most at risk for HIV tested, because if you don’t know, right, or shame, you’re to blame. You can’t ever be blamed for it. Yeah. And so once you know, your name can always be anyone can talk for the rest of your life, say they didn’t tell me. The other part of it that I found really disastrous was that there was never any actually scientific proof that in the one case that was involved, that he’d actually transmitted the virus to him in the way that a murder trial, and I think that they should be thought of similarly because His sentence was longer than the average sentence for second degree murder in Missouri. You know, in the murder trial, you would like automatically do DNA evidence, right? You have to know yeah, here would be doing RNA sequencing that was never done. So how it actually even transmitted is unclear. But the laws are, they’re really stigmatizing. And they include things that exposure well, where, you know, never happened. For the four of the five people involved with the initial round of connections. It was just about exposure, spitting as long been one of the on the list of ways that people can be prosecuted. And we know that HIV doesn’t move through saliva. And while I was reporting this over the years, there was this rise of the quote unquote, Blue Lives Matter laws that were supposed to protect police officers in the Black Lives Matter era, and the most insidious of them, added sentencing enhancement around HIV to say that if somebody was arrested who have HIV, and a police officer, you know, bashes their head on to sidewalk And they start bleeding. And they haven’t disclosed their HIV status, they could be prosecuted with attempted murder of the officer as a capital crime. So like these, these are so horrible. And just so that was the case that I started with. And I thought, I love getting to talk about craft. Because I don’t get to do that often. There were various versions of writing in the book where I thought maybe the first act of the book is about Michael, there was a completely different version of it before this one where I was really writing more about Michael, Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson and Michael Johnson. But what I finally did was create several different temporal lines, there’s, there’s kind of one from early aids to the president over about 40 years. And some ways I’m going before that, because I’m explaining about the role of the transatlantic slave trade, a lot of matters of race and health. But the book, also, I think, the hardest timeline in the book is over the period of about seven years, where I’m showing from Michael’s arrest, until eventually he gets out of prison and COVID begins. And that’s a period of about seven years. And so I did decide that I broke the book into four acts. And each of the acts begins with a part of Michael’s life, we see it about two years apart, we see him getting arrested. Two years later, we see the trial. Two years later, we see that his sense gets overturned. And then finally, at the end of the book, he gets out of prison, although we also pair I pair that up with with what happens with learnable Haas and show that Michael’s story is a happy one, I’m very happy that he’s out of prison, he’s enjoying his life, he’s seems we’re still in touch, he seems to be a relatively happy young man, even though he lost most of his 20s in prison, like he gets out. But that’s really the unfortunately, that’s the exception, not the rule that someone like him gets out. And so I wanted to come back to a story of sort of a through line to think about, when does racism come up? When does individual responsibility come up? When you know, is it I think, for me, one of the biggest moves out of reporting historian and my dissertation work was saying, like, this happens to white people, too. And illustrating the ways I’ve seen that happen outside of the United States, and also how things happen in Asia and Africa. But his story is the one that I keep coming back to both because it’s the one I know the most, I think it exposes certainly more than anything else. I’ve reported the horrible, systemic problems in our country, but it does, improbably have kind of a happy ending. And it’s very rare as a journalist, that you can really get to see the end of the story and have kind of a happy ending to it. So that’s why I kept coming back to that story. And coming and going from what it revealed over this period of time. And then you get, you know, it gets out right before COVID. Right. So then we kind of go through it again.
Traci Thomas 22:52
Right? Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. All right, we’re back from our break, I want to ask you about the criminalization of sickness of being ill I want to talk to I sort of has to do also with the individualism that we talked about a lot. I’m, I’m curious, like, if being sick, makes you a horrible, inadequate human being, whether that’s with COVID, or HIV, or whatever, if it means that you’re weak, and you’re bad, and you failed in a lot of senses, especially with COVID. There’s this feeling like if you get COVID, you failed. How come we are not putting that same kind of pressure on people who are actively not taking precautions? Like how come there isn’t that same shame and guilt being put on people who are actively anti mask actively anti Vax? How does that make sense because of getting sick means that you’re a failure, and you’re a horrible person and you’re, you’re you should die? doesn’t actively not protecting yourself lead to that, and therefore Shouldn’t those people be seen on that same spectrum? Obviously, I’m being very tongue in cheek, I don’t believe that if you’re at COVID. During this lesson, I just want people at home to know, but like, that’s sort of how it’s the conversation. So I’m wondering like, why the prophylaxis part of it doesn’t lead you to being a terrible person, the anti prophylaxis.
Steven Thrasher 24:24
These things you know, they so much intersect with race and class and gender, a part of the book that ended up getting cut back a fair amount because I just didn’t have room to do it justice, particularly in comparison to an entire book written about it much. Well, there’s the story of Mary Magdalene, who was known as Typhoid Mary. So often what happens is the people who come into our purview as having these viruses, it’s very race class, gender, national, Mary Mallon, Typhoid Mary, she was a Irish immigrant. I think that there was she wasn’t married, so there’s, I think, some like, homophobia in there as well. She was lower working class. And so those kinds of people are always blamed more, much more. So it’s interesting historically, when you look at how viruses move, they very, very rarely affect the upper class more polio a little bit in the United States, at one point, but briefly, syphilis in the Victorian era was amongst the ruling class, but those are really unusual. For the most part, viruses move much more among the lower class people. Certainly, ultimately, with a couple of our recent pandemics, including COVID, and monkey pox, you see it first moving amongst people who can move can afford to fly, you know, raise movements around flights. But then quickly, those people because they can afford to fly are also the ones most likely to get medication and vaccination. And so it cycles out of their social networks, and then it settles into the, you know, the economically lower classes very much happening with with monkey pox. Now, at the same time, even though that movement might be happening through people who can afford to fly, migrants are often blamed for and in the United States. Right now, we do have the situation where title 42 is still being used, that allows for the exported deportation of migrants out of the US under the guise that they are the most likely to be carrying disease. And so even as there are almost no COVID protocols from the national government right now, and that the government to come back to your point, you know, cannot even say the word mas Rochelle walensky was just out of work for 18 days with COVID, the CDC director, and didn’t mention mas right before her tweet about dealing with that RSV and flu and we’ll talk about masking since, but migrants are very much still blamed for these things. queers trans people, people of color, have long been blamed for this. So there are Michael Johnson is very good isn’t the right word. He’s a very powerful illustration of how this dynamic plays out. 40 million people in the world have HIV. But here is this black, sexually active gay, mostly illiterate at the time college wrestler, who’s a good convenient scapegoat for right, carrying the anxieties of everybody. And as I read about in the book, and Michael will say himself, he sees himself as having responsibility in his own story. He wants to have responsibility. But I think that it is not fair for him to be carrying everybody’s responsibility. And so that’s what will happen. I write in the book, in these key moments, actually in the same neighborhood where the horrible stampede happened in Seoul. I think, this last following weekend from when we’re recording. That was where that neighborhood is also very gay neighborhood. And it’s where an outbreak like kind of Korea second big outbreak of COVID happened in 2020 or 2020 2021. I’m forgetting I think it’s 2020. And because it was a gay neighborhood that has all the stigma on and people start conflating this is something you know, that gay people are doing the bathhouse in the neighborhood and the gay bars were extremely forthcoming and helpful with contact tracers as similar institutions had been extremely helpful with dealing with monkey pox more so than the federal government. Right, the stigma of it quickly conflates together difference. queerness difference transmits, or migrant nature as showing why, why we think of these things together. And a project that can’t quite talk about yet. Not yet. But I’ve been watching a lot of watching a lot of movies about viruses. And I’m seeing that this is all this is such a common thing. And movies that either deal with zombies or viruses that like often migrants are the people who are seen to be bringing these viruses in. So in that way, I think that what you were asking the there there are often scapegoats are seeing this way, but if somebody is powerful and anti Vax, are powerful and anti mass, they’re not blamed as much. And the early days of COVID in the US, like there were these police moments where police were like arresting, writing tickets, or arresting people for not wearing masks. And they’re beating the shit exclusively out of black people, wherever, wherever the data was, wherever that was kept, of course,
Traci Thomas 29:13
so that tracks very on brand for them. So but basically what I’m hearing you say is that the and I think like I mean, I think this is pretty clear in the book, but that a lot of the systems that are in place, are there to continue to like exacerbate the viral underclass like it’s not there. We’re not actually trying to eradicate this like it’s part it’s important to the United States to have a viral underclass for a lot of reasons, including to have a large portion of scapegoats.
Steven Thrasher 29:43
I think part of what I learned from writing the book is obviously I’m interested in viruses but Right. But I think that they just illustrate that there is an underclass in the US us economically and politically creates multiple classes a ruling class working class proletariat and an underclass, the under classes always going to be produced by the US. And the viral nature of it perpetuates itself, but also is just a way of seeing how the US works. Right. And it’s been really, you know, as we’re speaking, we’re just a couple of days after the midterm elections, and I was horrified that the, you know, that COVID was a non issue, you know, 130,000 people have died of COVID since the last election 650,000, under Biden, 12,000. In the last month, Regina, if the current numbers held that I looked at yesterday, it looks like we’ll come in between 10 to allow 11,000 deaths this month. And it was a non issue, it simply does not exist. And the people who are dying are poor and elderly deaths in nursing homes have gone up fourfold in the last few months, and it is just something that is not talked about. So yeah, like this is what the US produces. We produce a an an underclass and a viral underclass through our American way of life. And one of the things I’m like trying to work through in the book is that a lot of the vectors haven’t changed, you know, Biden was came in saying the right things, says nothing now came in saying the right things. But the US incarcerates the same number of people or more than it did under Trump. And so the disparities we see that go along with incarceration are unchanged in some cases, are getting worse in some ways.
Traci Thomas 31:27
Right? Do you feel like having a viral underclass like can lead to skepticism in the broader culture? And if so, what does that look like when it comes to anti vaxxers?
Steven Thrasher 31:40
Yeah, I think that I know so many people who are dealing with this in painful ways in their own family, and I’ve I’ve begun to do so as well. There, people are anti Vax for a variety of reasons in different countries, but the dominant way it came into the modern us, as I write about in the book is by way of a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield who started this myth, the MMR, measles, mumps and rubella vaccines cause autism.
Traci Thomas 32:09
This part of the book was one of the most enraging parts of the book for me, like even like having to have to talk about this right now. I’m like getting hot anyway, sorry.
Steven Thrasher 32:18
That’s why no, I get angry that you know that Jenny McCarthy plays a role the Baywatch
Traci Thomas 32:22
Hirsi Ali right wasn’t a fucking Jesus Christ.
Steven Thrasher 32:27
But I think it’s interesting because you know, vaccination rates, the there was a lot of hand wringing, that black people wouldn’t get the vaccines, the struck their structural problems to poor and black and brown people getting vaccines, but actually, when you deal with those, the rates come in a lot higher black and brown people are slightly higher vaccinated than white people in the US with them that has come through an enormous amount of muscle put in through, you know, community groups to make them available. But when they are available, people take them it’s likely have higher rates than white people. The hesitancy around vaccines comes from wealthy white people, Malibu near where I grew up, you know, Malibu marks California, having like a very white supremacist, like Nazi like ableism that my child’s genes are so good, they don’t need to be dealt with, with vaccines. And something that happened this I’ll probably write about in the little bit, I’ll add in the paperback edition, something very similar. It’s been said by Leanna Wen, who is a very controversial public health person who’s on CNN, and writes for The Washington Post and she said she a few weeks ago a couple of months ago that she would stop masking her child because that was going to harm his speech development. He wasn’t going to learn how to speak and both of these things are untrue like vaccines do not cause autism. Masks do not cause speech development children who are blind learn speech at exactly the same as cyber children.
Traci Thomas 33:52
Oh, cuz she’s saying like they can’t see.
Steven Thrasher 33:55
Yeah. And so that’s that’s making him you know, quote unquote, slow.
Traci Thomas 33:58
But can he still wear a mask if other people aren’t when you wish you like want to get in a classroom I hate.
Steven Thrasher 34:03
I will just say it again, like neither of these things are true or true. Autism, the mass don’t call speech development. But using that logic, the way that these parents are thinking that what they’re saying, in essence is, being disabled is so bad, like the idea of being autistic or maybe needing longer with speech is so disgusting, that I would rather risk my child’s life and risk the lives of other children to avoid dealing with disability in some way. And so that’s one of the ways that we really have vaccine hesitancy in this country. It’s very classed it’s very ableist it has a dominant gene thinking in ability of, of what my child can do and your child can’t do. And it’s really depressing and it was also for me, like one of the things that was most angry trying to write and actually my editor wasn’t at my original proposal, my editor asked me to weave into that. And I found it really angering to do so. And but in terms of your question, if it’s spilling into the wider society, the way that I understand it a bit, and I have like my, one of my sisters, on the white side of my family, that yeah, there’s been no sort of vaccine hasn’t seen the black side of the family, but did not come to my book reading and in our hometown, because I hear she’s, you know, condensed the vaccine is killing all these people. And in my most generous thinking about this, she was left like to die by the stage at one point, she had a good job, it was cut in budget cuts, and her family was thrown off the cliff, you know, they lost their health insurance, they lost almost everything. And so I do think, in my most generous attempt to be sympathetic, that if you are a person who’s been involved in our healthcare system in the US, and you got cancer, and the system said, you’re on your own, or you lost your job, and you lost their health insurance and couldn’t get the mental health care, or the heart medication or insulin, and you’re told you’re on your own, then when that same system comes to you and says, We’ll take this thing, because it’s going to help you, but you really should do it, because you have to help everyone else, I understand people being like, Screw you, like, you know, the system left me for Dad, why should I do something, that’s probably not going to kill me, because I see myself as being healthy. And I should do this to protect other people, when everyone else said, you know, you have cancer, you’re on your own. And that I think, is a that is like a real problem of our system in the US that they deal with other things in the UK or other countries, but they don’t deal with that, like they’re not dealing with, you can go to the NHS and get your monkey pox or COVID shot, you could be hospitalized for any of these things, you’re not going to walk out with a $95,000 hospital bill. And so like, because the point of interaction with so many people in health care in the US is harm and punishment, you are punished for getting sick, you know, economically and socially, that creates a real problem. And my background has not been as much international public health. But I’ve, of course, been learning a lot about it the past couple of years. And something that I found most fascinating for my colleagues is a predictor of how countries did with COVID wasn’t how rich or poor they were in one metric, the US is the richest country in the world and the worst, with COVID. The best predictor was actually what percent our country spending on preventative medicine within the budgets that they have. And so you’ll have like very, very poor countries. But they put a lot of their money into the prevention of malaria, West Nile virus, Ebola, things like that. And other populations have a ongoing for years or decades relationship with public health people who if you’ve been like listening to somebody, and they’ve been seeing this in Uganda now, you know, like people have been doing a bullet work for decades there and then they’re there and the infrastructures there when there’s a flare up. And if those same people say to you, oh, now there’s this other thing, you need to wear masks for it, people are inclined to do so the US like we spent almost all of our money in the emergency rooms, there’s no relationship between health system and people. And we’re like very much lurching from disaster to disaster. And then as as now like letting go of all all of our infrastructure from the last disaster until the next one needs to come up. And that does create a lot of mistrust in the wider society that has a deleterious effect on the public health overall.
Traci Thomas 38:35
Yeah. And I think like, I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I have so many other questions. I’m like, stressed out because I’m like, I’m not gonna get to everything. But I think what’s interesting about what you’re saying, also, I do think has a lot to do. Well, let me backtrack. This month we had on Mariam Kaba to talk on the show. And then at the end of the month, she and I are not the week after everyone listen to this, we’re going to be discussing a book called prison by any other name, which is all about like reform. And I think one of the things about like abolition work and you know, defund police abolish police, all that stuff, is that it’s really connected to what you’re talking about, like the viral underclass while like, like you said, the Center for you is the virus part of it, because that’s the work that you do. The underclass part of it is really the key, right? It’s like people who don’t have access to health care support, job security, housing, any of those things, they don’t have a relationship with a doctor that they trust that they know, that isn’t just whoever is on call when they need them at the emergency room. And I think like just thinking about the work that you do, and thinking about what we’ve been thinking about on the show this month is like really helpful. And of course, then again, really frustrating. Like it’s like these things are all so connected and it really is about like, we haven’t imagined or reimagined what community can and should look like if we want to be healthy and safe as much as possible, right? Like, because it’s not what you’re saying isn’t that like, if we have these things, we’ll never have another pandemic. It’s not that it’s just that if we have these things, we’ll be able to handle a pandemic. And we’ll be able to mitigate the amount of people who are severely ill or die or, or can’t get access or loose fit, like all of these things that make it more challenging to be a human in the face of a pandemic. I have one more kind of question for you, then I want to move a little bit into processing process stuff. How do you feel like your perspective as a black queer man is unique to understanding viral underclass, the viral underclass, or the work that you do? And do you feel like, I mean, I don’t know this to be true. But I have to imagine that like, in a lot of sciences, it’s a lot of white guys. So do you feel? I don’t I don’t have like the facts and figures. It’s just an assumption. But do you feel? This is correct? Thank you, I also went to NYU. So I feel like great education. Do you feel like you your work is taken seriously? Do you feel appreciated? Do you feel like your perspectives are seen and heard? Or do you feel like you struggle to be to like, stick your foot in the door and make carve out space for your identities?
Steven Thrasher 41:20
I would say both depends on the time of day or the day. You know, I think that once I understood that, if one and two black gay men are projected to become HIV positive, that just gives a very, very different orientation to this virus. That one that so many people think is not really an issue. Now, good. Enough, good is the right word, but a positive thing, there are a number of positive things that have come out of the COVID 19 pandemic, one of which is the general public, having much more knowledge about AIDS history, and how that can inform us. And to me, the politics and the culture that came out of dealing with AIDS, were some of the most important of US history. And so I love Mary Ann’s work in prison abolition and mutual credit care, things like that. And there’s been an exponential rise in consciousness around those things, because of the COVID 19 pandemic, which will bear fruit even in ways that might not be obvious now, but young people who’ve learned this, like this is going to this is going to feed them for the rest of their lives and the kind of work that they do. And so, you know, I think when you’re some of them, I’m HIV negative, or it was the last time I tested. But when you’re someone who lives in relationship with this kind of virus and understand, like, it happens to one out of every two of us, but not only affects you or me interpersonally, that makes me look at a case like Michael Johnson’s and say, Well, how can you think, like, how can you want to throw someone in prison for something that they’re 5050 odds of getting, right. And I used to think that if one and two, you know, blonde, white women were likely to be an HIV positive in their lifetime, that that would be like, the lead of the news all the time. Now, I’m a little confused. Like, I don’t know what to make of how we can have pediatric ers bursting with COVID, RSV and flu and have relatively little interest. So I’m not sure what to make of how we how the society values different kinds of people right now. But I do think that I’m able to get heard some of the time, it’s often a fight. You know, of course, there’s all kinds of microaggressions I’m glad that I’ve, you know, gotten a lot of support with writing this book. And I do, you know, I was giving grant rounds, we address either public health or medical school faculty, or staffs of hospitals. And I was in one where they were very dismissive, and a lot of their questions which I found from other black journalists and PR and public health people that they had that experience as well. And that made me think about how you know how and when people like me get taken seriously. But one of the questions that really stuck with me was, I think they were an MD saying, you know, what, you’re talking about this, this could be about poverty, right. And now I just explicitly talked about how certain things with race actually track differently than, than straight up economics. And they were saying like, and you know, kind of just just be like about heart disease or any chemical these like, why viruses and I felt like we didn’t listen to how I came into this through the story of a virus. But to be like, there is something and I think this is where I as a black gay man who thinks about HIV a lot. And I know many of my boyfriend’s have been HIV positive. And so it’s just something that I have negotiated in my life. There is explicit knowledge, I think is queer people and black queer people that is helpful for the world to know. And the filmmaker Marlon Riggs, I highly recommend if you haven’t seen this work, Tongues Untied he made these movies before he died of AIDS with all these other Like a poets who were all HIV positive, almost everyone in the movies died, you know, in the early 90s, they’re making them in the late 80s, early 90s, before there were any drugs. And sitting with that existential knowledge and understanding that your body is not only your own, but you are in your in relationship with all these other bodies where this terrible thing is happening. That to me is very explicitly useful information for understanding how to deal with public health or understanding how to deal with climate change. So you know, we cannot only see our destinies as we typically are socialized to do so in the US is, we’re all on our own individual hero’s journey. And so that way, I don’t know if I get taken seriously. But I sort of demand to be taken seriously, that there’s like something very special that we benefit from, and the queer activists who did work with act up and those kinds of organizations forced changes in the ways that the FDA, the federal government, and corporations test and distribute medication such that it saved millions or 10s of millions of lives, like the fact that we’re vaccinated would not have been possible before this kind of activism happened around that, that saved so many people’s lives. So in that way, there is something special about viruses themselves, even though they’re, you know, they’re illustrating these dynamics that friends of mine, Louise Seamster, who writes about water, most as your graduates about sex work, Zach Siegel, who writes about drug use, we’re all like dealing with the same factors around racism and homophobia and capitalism through the prism of water or viruses or whatever. But I think as a black gay man, what I can bring to the table is having dealt with this seriously, intellectually, but also personally, and understanding and evangelizing and demanding that you know, that my ancestors, the work that they did be acknowledged for the very positive role that’s had in American history. And that it can be a really powerful guide for understanding how to navigate the sometimes insurmountable feeling problems in our world.
Traci Thomas 47:05
I’m going to do a really hard shift. How do you right? Where are you? How many hours a day? Is there music? Or no? Do you have snacks and beverages? Tell me about it.
Steven Thrasher 47:15
I love crafting. So I right now, all right now, I had largely I’m teaching I teach about 20 weeks a year, I’m teaching at Northwestern. And I’ve done about 8085 live events or interviews a second. So I’m very, like I had sort of budgeted like, you know, I’m just gonna be telling people about the book right now. I usually try to write once a month for Scientific American, I haven’t even done that right now. And I’m finishing up the touching the polishing off the stuff for my next book proposal. But I prefer to write I think, because I was a staff writer at The Village Voice for a long time, I really liked to write like a job starting in the morning and go into the evening if I’m if I’m bothered by nothing else is I was at certain points of the pandemic I can write for, like 12 or 14 days straight. But I tried to, for the most part, teach in the weeks I’m teaching, and then just write in the weeks that I’m not teaching or doing other things. I have some like funny quirks I’ve developed over the years i i love to write on a Mac, but then edit on a PC you okay? So my days, the Village Voice where I would write from home on my Mac, and then I would go into the office on the PC. I somebody has been very hard in the pandemic because I very much like going I don’t like writing at home, I like to go to my office or to a library. So that was hard. I did get to I lived in Puerto Rico for a few months in the pandemic and I finished writing the book there and I got to look at the ocean while I wrote so that was really wonderful. But for the most part, I really like to go and I can just like turn on my computer aid and forcing myself to have to stop for lunch but like I can just write straight until like six o’clock.
Traci Thomas 49:00
So no snacks or beverages while you’re writing.
Steven Thrasher 49:03
Yeah, I don’t have like nuts and things like that. Like sort of protein things. Music I can rarely listen to wall I write I read about I’ve written about Philip Glass a lot. And so sometimes his music or Steve righteous music for 18 musicians I can listen to, but I’ll listen to that more when I’m editing. But usually when I’m writing, it’s quiet.
Traci Thomas 49:27
And what’s a word you can never spell correctly on the first try?
Steven Thrasher 49:31
Most of them but I would say probably the the one that comes to mind right now is like epidemiologically
Traci Thomas 49:40
I know you’re writing that a lot. So yeah, sounds like a nightmare. For me. That’s never coming up. I’m like it’s never happening but I am a terrible speller. So I could never spell that.
Steven Thrasher 49:49
It will be very like upfront that and I tell tell my students this that I was blessed to work in professional press and have copy editors And I leave a lot to than that. I also wrote for The Guardian where I always knew the copy would have to be changed because I could not be switching back and forth between British and American English. I see. So my ass is routinely saved by copy.
Traci Thomas 50:11
Yeah. Oh my god, what a dream. You went to Tisch for undergrad? I do. As did I, what did you study?
Steven Thrasher 50:19
I yeah, I went to NYU. I did my PhD there many years later. But I was started out in Dramatic Writing, where I was studying screenwriting, and then I also double majored in film and TV production. In the 90s. What did you study?
Traci Thomas 50:32
I was a theater major. So which studio or is it was it I did Strasburg, classical and et w. So I’ve moved around a little bit. But whenever I see a fellow tishie, I have to know what they studied.
Steven Thrasher 50:45
Like, I’m finally coming back into some film stuff. 20 years later, oh, wow, cool. But I very much feel like the way that I learned I learned about dramatic structure in film very much influenced, like how I became a feature writer. And then eventually how I wrote my book lays out the ways that I learned that scene construction is very influential to the worker,
Traci Thomas 51:06
I love that I there’s so many things that I feel like I learned at Tisch that I have carried with me into the work that I do now, even though I never was like a book person in college, you know, but reading a script, etc, etc. Like, you know what, you know what a good story is if you study theater, dramatic arts, like you know, when it hits anyways, I do want to ask you this, what’s not in this book that you wish was or could have been? Or could be?
Steven Thrasher 51:34
I wish I’d gotten to travel more because I got when I was writing the book, because I got a good advance and I have a professor job. But there was a pandemic, right. So like the chapter that I wrote, in West Virginia, I tried to there were two different times are supposed to go. And both times got canceled because of COVID. But that’s just part of what this time in the world is. And I wish that I had and I finally got to meet her later, Alice Wong, who’s one of my favorite writers and thinkers in the world, you know, I interviewed her resume, I going to finally meet her in person. Later, more recent, I
Traci Thomas 52:09
saw that on your Instagram, I thought was very cool, because she had a book-
Steven Thrasher 52:12
You know, in my mind, I would get to like, write a book and like get to travel around and interview everyone face to face and a lot of stuff was through zoom just because of the pandemic. And, you know, there I go back and forth on, I get to usually get like the same criticism from academics about like, certain things that I haven’t gone into more depth with, but around class, the history around some of the arguments around the underclass, which has a particular background in sociology, I know, lots of sociologists, but for the most part, I didn’t, I’m very happy that I got to write the kind of book I did. And I wrote for the I wrote for The Guardian for years, and my general framework was I have people’s attention for a very limited amount of time. And I want to get as much in at as high level as I can pull them in the amount of time I have, which I got to do with this book. And there are ways that I wish I could have like written a bit more in depth about the capitalism or about kind of some of the social theory, but I’m, I feel like I got to share the right amount with as wide an audience as possible. But the thing I probably feel the sadness about was in the chapter in West Virginia, I wish I’d gotten to. I had I had more conversations with people that I talked that I wish I got into, and I wish I had just gotten to physically spend time because that’s the only chapter where I wasn’t I had not been there before the break.
Traci Thomas 53:37
Right. For people who love the viral underclass, what are a few books that you might recommend to them that are in conversation with your work?
Steven Thrasher 53:44
I would suggest a leak cap shared, which is a really wonderful philosophy book, Beth Macy’s raising Lazarus Oh, which she also wrote dope sick, which the Hulu series is based on and she and I were just did a concert together and it was like being in a house on fire. We got along really great. Linda Villarosa is under the skin, which she’s also writing a bit about West Virginia. And we’ve been in conversation for years and really beautiful book about health disparities, also involving COVID, HIV, but also black maternal mortality and infant mortality. Whew. Ryan’s the women’s house of detention, which is a gorgeous book about the history of an a women’s jail in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. And I think, in some similar ways that I do is dealing with LGBTQ history in the way that intersects with poverty and incarceration. And unfortunately, our community does not always lift up those stories. The most KSA layman’s heavy was very helpful for me in thinking about how I wanted to write about my own part of the story. You know, I’m a client Shock Doctrine was very influential to me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. which I read like 20 years ago, very much influenced the way I wrote the chapter about speciesism. And it still really holds up. But I feel very grateful. Like there are a lot of people doing really great public health work, and it’s been a joy to get to be in conversation with some of them in the past few months.
Traci Thomas 55:18
I love that. Okay. Before I ask you the last question, I’m just going to tell people this because I know someone will DM me and ask, I listened to the audiobook, too. I listen to part of book on the audio, Stephen reads it, it’s very, very good. So if you’re nervous about nonfiction, because I know some of you are, even though I tried to tell you not to be, you can listen to this on audio, and you will understand it. And it’s not too high level or complex. Because I know sometimes with audio with nonfiction, people get off the whole thing. So if you’re interested in the audiobook, I am endorsing the audiobook, as well as the print copy. Also, for people who are super sciency, smart brained, my husband, who is a physician, loved the book as much as I did a person who cannot add without a calculator. So it’s really like it really does cover a wide audience. So if you’re at all curious about the viral underclass, which you all should be because it’s affecting all of us right now, in COVID, no matter where you are, check it out. And now for my final question, if you could have one person dead or alive, read this book, who would you want it to be?
Steven Thrasher 56:18
I think it would want it to be my father. He died when I was 24. And he was very much influential in my life as a writer, but he died before he ever published anything. So I very much wish I could have shared this with him. And he was extremely political. Also a teacher, not an exam. I mean, some of the same issues as me, but he died before I got to tell him I was gay. So yeah, I wish that he could read it, I hope in some plane of existence, he is aware of that, because he’s very much in the DNA of this book about RNA.
Traci Thomas 56:51
I love that. Steven, thank you so much for being here. This was such a treat.
Steven Thrasher 56:57
Thank you i i really appreciate and everything you do. KSA first put you on my radar and, and just really appreciate what you’ve done not just for my book, but your generosity and enthusiasm for all kinds of books, particularly from people of color and queer people and you’re just doing such amazing work and the infectious quality of how excited you are for books really translates in everything you do.
Traci Thomas 57:25
So thank you. I’m gonna cry. I’m like, emotional. Thank you so much, Steven. That’s so kind of you and everyone else. We will see you in The Stacks.
All right. Well, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Steven Thrasher for being my guest and also like to thank entire PR team at celadon books are helping to make this interview possible. The stacks book club pick for November is prison by any other name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria law. We will be discussing the book on November 30 With Mariame Kaba Be sure to tune in. If you love the show and want inside access to it head to patreon.com/the stocks and joined TheStackspack make sure you’re subscribed to the stocks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcast be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and The Stackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website The Stackspodcast.com This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian blend yes with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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