In the 1970s, millions of Vietnamese fled their country after the war ended. So many immigrated by sea that the 2 million Vietnamese refugees who landed on America’s shores after 1975 were almost always generically referred to at the time as “boat people.”
No matter how refugees left Vietnam, the 8,500-mile voyage to America wasn’t an easy passage. Accidents, drownings, and pirate attacks stole innumerable lives, but at least the United States seemed willing to accept the survivors. Some even welcomed them with open arms. Churches and synagogues urged their congregations to offer assistance, and many Americans opened their homes to immigrant families to help them resettle.
Andrew Spieldenner was born in Texas to a family that was among those Vietnamese refugees, and he lived in multiple places (Texas, Ohio, and Florida) as they searched for a better life. His teen years were spent in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
“My family’s mixed, so growing up was interesting,” Spieldenner recalls. “Half my family is white, and the other half is Vietnamese. So at one point in Ohio, we had more than 20 relatives living with us through refugee [placement], and it was actually featured in the newspaper.”
His was a far different experience than what’s happening on the U.S. border today, says Spieldenner, a professor of communication at California State University, San Marcos. He worries about the “enhanced militarization of the border, the rhetoric that’s going around about Latinx communities and immigrants and migrants” and its impact on his mostly Latinx students.
“I was talking to my mom the other day and we were saying how different that newspaper story would be today,” he admits, “because back in the ’70s it was like, ‘Look at this charming family in Ohio hosting 27 refugees.’ And today it would be like, ‘Investigate this home.’”
With a doctorate from Howard University, a historically Black university, as well as a master’s from University of California, Los Angeles, and a bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkeley, Spieldenner seems an easy fit for academia. He’s the first person in his family with a Ph.D. But that career, or any career, wasn’t always a given for the man who has now been living with HIV for 20 years.
“It was funny,” Spieldenner jokes of his 2009 graduation from Howard. “Actually, when I graduated, my mother said to me, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you. I’m so glad you didn’t become a crackhead.’ And I was thinking, That was the bar? [But] in fairness to my mom, I did have a serious drug issue. I have had serious drug issues in my life.”
Today, Spieldenner is a well-respected HIV activist. He serves as chair of the U.S. People Living With HIV Caucus, as well as research director for the U.S. implementation of the People Living With HIV Stigma Index for the North America affiliate of the Global Network of People Living With HIV.
He worked in the nonprofit HIV field before becoming a professor, and previously held senior positions at the Latino Commission on AIDS, the National Association of People with AIDS, and the Black AIDS Institute. And while he could sweep his past under the rug, he never does, especially not with students.
“I think it’s important to be transparent about identities, particularly stigmatized ones, particularly if we have the privilege and position to be able to speak openly,” Spieldenner insists. “I think it’s important. I have had periods where I’ve done heavy drug use. Life is hard. Life sucks. I think drugs are one way of coping with the world. People have different experiences using drugs. People have different experiences with addiction.”
The activist professor says he’s a firm believer that drug users are people who are self-medicating.
“Every language, every culture has a word for pain and a word for healing,” Spieldenner says. “I think part of what we don’t really recognize with people who are using drugs is what is the pain and what is the healing that needs to happen. And we don’t have a society that supports that. We don’t have a society that supports harm-reduction programs. We don’t have a society that sees substance use as a health condition. Instead, we pathologize people who use drugs.”
While using words like drug “user” instead of drug “addict” are simple adjustments that help destigmatize marginalized folks, being open, he says, is even more critical. “I want my college students to understand that lots of different people use drugs, that it’s not just those people over there, and that if they have issues they’re experiencing or they’re experimenting, that they can talk to somebody about it and that it’s not a weird thing.”
Spieldenner says that the more “we don’t talk about identities, when we keep them hidden, is when people start developing shame around perfectly normal things.”
Sure, he’s been told not to talk about being gay or living with HIV, but Spieldenner has wisely ignored that advice. “Masturbation should not be something people are ashamed about,” he adds. “And yet if I talk about masturbation in the classroom, which I do, people flip out like, ‘I can’t believe you talked about masturbation.’ It’s like, ‘Seriously, it’s like the first thing you learn to do.’ I’m just like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
It’s paid off at Cal State where his students report that they love the conversation his classes engage in.
“On the first day, I tell them that I have HIV, I tell them I’m a gay man of color, and I tell them that if they have problems with that they can leave and somebody else will take that spot. Every semester people drop, which is good. I don’t want them in my class, and other people do.”
Talking with a counselor helps students cope with their own depression. Last semester, one of Spieldenner’s students told him, “You make us feel so welcome because you’re so out there.”
“Because I’m open about going to therapy,” he says, “she realized it wasn’t a weird thing to go to therapy, even though people in her family didn’t do that. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m out is because it filters out people that I don’t want around me, but I also think it’s important for people to see somebody with HIV in the classroom as a professor. I think it’s important for people living with HIV to know that we can still go to grad school, that these things are still part of what we can do in the world, that we can be professors.”
In a world where nearly half of all LGBTQ employees are closeted at work (according to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign workplace study), Spieldenner is still one of the few academics in the country who are out about living with HIV.
“I know a couple other academics who are out about having HIV. I know a lot more that aren’t out about it and some of them say things like, ‘Well, then my students will know I’ve had sex.’ And I’m always like, ‘Well, if you tell them you’re gay, they assume you have sex — they assume you have sex if you’re an adult.’ I don’t quite get the logic.”
He says that unlike decades ago, when Magic Johnson was talking about HIV, and speakers went into classrooms and talked about living with HIV to high school students, “a lot of times people that are 20 might not have met anybody with HIV. [That is] one of the reasons I think it’s important to kind of center that experience in the classroom so they can’t go for the rest of their life saying, ‘I never met somebody with HIV.’”
His students may also be at higher risk for acquiring HIV and not getting tested. Students at Cal State San Marcos are mostly first-generation Americans, and many are the first in their family to go to college.
“And we service a largely Latinx community at my university,” he explains. “We’re near the border, so there’s challenges that we have at this university that other universities might not have. I had a student ask for an extension on a paper because his mother had been deported over the weekend. I don’t have the kind of student that’s like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do? I didn’t get asked out this weekend.’”
Spieldenner admits, “I love where I teach, I love the students. They make everything worthwhile. I have four students starting grad school that are all first-generation Latinx this fall. And it’s that capacity to really work with them and show them what else is out there. No one asks a queer person [about it], if we’re like, ‘Oh, I’m moving to L.A., or ‘I’m moving to New York.’ People just say, ‘Yes queen, go.’ But for straight kids, they don’t get that. So if they say they’re moving to New York or L.A. or they’re following their dream someplace, people wonder why.”
Queer people are often asked why they would leave their families, he says. “We leave our families because they’re not always that safe. As loving as they try to be with us, sometimes the way they love us is damaging. And one of the things that I’ve been really happy about is being able to work with students and get them to see what else is out there in the world, what other kinds of people can they be so they don’t have to do the same job that their parents did or [live in] the same situation.”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges, especially with students dealing with intense fear. Last semester, a young student gunman shot up a synagogue on Spieldenner’s campus. So while people were scared already of the enhanced rhetoric around immigration and the weaponized borders, the professor says, “Having somebody who was your student actually be a shooter changes the dynamic a lot on campus. There’s a lot of fear that there’ll be a repeat. So it’s just fucking weird to be a teacher right now.”
But Spieldenner is nothing if not resilient. He proved that years ago after his boyfriend died of AIDS complications in the 1990s, “before treatment was really accessible. [And] the guy who diagnosed me told me I had seven to 10 years if I was lucky.” So he left the country, spent a year in Vietnam (to see where his family came from) and visited Thailand (where he stayed for another year).
“I was supposed to only stay for a weekend. Oops! One of the things that I learned was that the rules are different in other parts of the world, that people have different ways of interacting, that not everything has to be about what kind of job you have and what people can get out of you.”
Spieldenner returned to the U.S., dove into HIV activism, and eventually branched into academia to make “a different kind of impact” and ultimately decided his “voice would be freer than if I worked at an HIV organization. I always felt like, when I worked for an HIV organization, my advocacy voice was compromised somewhat. And since I joined academia, I can say what I want.”
The HIV advocacy work he does now offers even more meaning to him. “I’m able to help build community for other people living with HIV. I was part of a group of HIV advocates who met with the presidential candidates in 2016. So none of that would’ve happened if I still stayed working in HIV. Things changed when I went to academia. I think what we’re seeing now in the HIV space is a lot of people want to know how to work in a different arena. And I think globally we see an economy where people don’t keep the same job forever. And I’m fortunate enough to have been able to switch careers and been successful at it. And I think more and more people need to think of themselves that way. Like, What am I going to do for the next 10 years?”
When he was younger and “encountered James Baldwin,” Spieldenner says, “I thought, Wow, that’s the kind of life I want. He travels the world, he writes, he drinks. And I’ve succeeded. So that’s been a good benchmark for me — that I actually am somebody who gets to travel, that gets to meet people, that gets to write and gets to build knowledge. I’m grateful about that and I’m proud of that. I’m also proud of some of the organizations that I’ve helped build, some of the community groups I’ve helped build like the U.S. People Living With HIV Caucus, my work with the Positive Women’s Network. I think that the work I’ve been able to do with other people living with HIV is really powerful. It definitely moves legislators.”
For a kid from an immigrant family, a gay man of color, and a self-described geek, Spieldenner is doing all right. He’s proud to have ended up “being a professor that gets to talk about health and the world and AIDS and cancer and dying and comic books and pornography.”
He’s not just the first in his family with a doctorate, he’s also the first person in his family to go to the White House as a guest — and the first to protest at the White House. He’s spoken at the United Nations as well.
“It’s surreal to be the first person in your family to go the U.N. or go to the White House for meetings,” he admits. “And at the same time, after you start doing it, you take it for granted. I was actually talking to my sister and I was in a low point and I was like, ‘I don’t even know if what I do matters in the world.’ And she said, ‘You were at the White House on a meeting for stigma. How many Spieldenners do you think have been to the White House?’ And I went, ‘Oh, I guess I am doing something with my life.’ It’s been surreal doing HIV advocacy at the level I’ve been able to, partially because I think a lot of people don’t get those opportunities. I know a lot of people in my family don’t get the opportunities and don’t take advantage of being able to meet with their legislators. A lot of people don’t know how easy that actually is to meet your local legislators. And that’s where change starts to happen.”
His work with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS forces him to “take the voice of civil society forward at a global stage and be able to make sure the HIV response at the U.N. level is human rights focused. I think we see a lot of countries that had very successful HIV responses turning more conservative and watching their HIV responses fall apart because they’re criminalizing gay men again or they’re criminalizing trans people or they’re criminalizing people with HIV and sex workers. You start to see these changes, politically, and how they affect on-the-ground work.”
While UNAIDS is working with nations around the globe to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, Spieldenner admits doubts. While he calls those goals “admirable” and necessary, he adds, “I’m not sure it’s realistic. There’s not enough treatment today in the world for all of us living with HIV, and part of that is capitalism. And there’s a huge disparity in what’s available in different countries, what is made available, what countries can afford. There’s been a huge withdrawal from the philanthropic field from HIV.… I [just] don’t see how it’s going to work.”
Some of the drop in HIV-related donations, he says, may be because “some of the philanthropic world has moved onto other issues, in part because the treatment is available and it’s not considered…a crisis the way it was. What saddens me about that is that as HIV got blacker and browner in the U.S., philanthropy left. And that to me is a sad statement because our lives are worth the investment.”
His task still is to “continue to keep our voices centered. My dreams for my future are to continue being able to make the changes, to continue to be part of an HIV movement that’s thriving. The one thing about HIV I wish I could teach the world is that we as people with HIV need to make our own communities. And we are able to support each other in ways that other people cannot. HIV, there is no cure for HIV. The best we have is each other.”