Why Jason Kenney’s vile HIV/AIDS comparison struck a nerve

OPINION: The Alberta premier compared the experience of unvaccinated people now to those with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s

During a news conference Tuesday, Alberta premier Jason Kenney revealed that when it comes to LGBTQ2S+ issues and HIV/AIDS in particular, he very much is the same man he’s always been.

At the presser announcing a phased end to all COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta (despite Alberta hospitalizations still soaring), Kenney shared sympathy for people opposed to vaccinations or COVID-19 restrictions. And then he took it a step further, and likened the experiences of those who choose not to get vaccinated to the experience of people with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

“It’s never okay to treat people like that, to stigmatize people in that way. In a way it kind of reminds me of the attitudes that circulated in North America in the mid-1980s about people with HIV/AIDS. There’s this notion they had to be, kind of, distanced for health reasons. This is a terribly divisive attitude,” Kenney said. 

“So yes, we encourage people to get vaccinated. But treating people who made a different decision as though they are unwelcome as members of our society is not acceptable.” 

On paper, the statement reads like Kenney is trying to express sympathy for both queer communities impacted by HIV/AIDS and people opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine — threading the needle between the vocal right-wing libertarian side of his base and everyone else, as he has throughout much of his tenure. 

In practice, it was rightfully and swiftly called out on social media as outrageous. And in the context of his past work separating queer men from their dying partners in the 1980s, it’s another line in a long resume of homophobic rhetoric and actions.

Why comparing anti-vaxxers to HIV/AIDS patients is so wrong

There’s a lot to unpack here. First: a different decision?! Let’s be clear: the choice to refuse a scientifically proven vaccination to protect you and those around you from a deadly disease that’s killed millions of people around the world is a decision


Living as a queer person in the 1980s in the midst of an epidemic that’s killed so many of our community, being abandoned by your loved ones, getting refused housing and begging government officials for any sort of medical aid—that is not a decision. That is not remotely comparable. Thousands of HIV patients died begging for treatment, for a vaccine, for anything! All while facing a wave of societal stigma, grounded in vile homophobia from family, friends, the medical establishment and governments. 

To suggest that their experiences are in any way comparable to the roughly 10 percent of adult Canadians who are not vaccinated against COVID-19—despite public health officials leaping through every hoop to make it accessible and literally paying people to do so—is appalling. You do not need to be well-versed in the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis to understand that these two groups are far from analogous. 

People living with (and dying from) HIV/AIDS do not choose that, and to suggest they did carries the gross suggestion that being queer and participating in queer sex is somehow a choice on the same level as choosing to ignore public health guidelines.

Further, Kenney’s comment feeds into the narrative pushed by ongoing protests and blockades across the country, that those who refuse vaccination or restrictions are somehow “opressed” or “stigmatized” in society. It’s a toxic kind of both-sidesism that runs rampant across the right, from so-called “reverse racism” to cis lesbians who claim that trans people’s basic rights infringe on their own. 

People from groups that don’t face stigma or oppression will point to another group that does and say “look, we’re oppressed like them!” It’s a false and dangerous equivalency, that fuels divisiveness, rather than heals it. A comment like Kenney’s directly undermines and minimizes the very real oppression, hate, pain and stigmatization that HIV positive people faced in the ‘80s and continue to face to this day

It took Kenney overnight, and a wave of backlash from across the country, to walk back the statement in a two-line response on Twitter. Notably, the apology was not shared to his other social media channels like Facebook, where much of his base resides. 

From many politicians, an ill-advised comment followed up by an apology like this can possibly be brushed off as a misunderstanding, or misspeaking. But from Kenney in particular, it’s just another line on a resume stained with anti-queer messaging and organizing. 

Kenney loves to recount his time volunteering at a hospice in San Francisco during the 1980s as proof of his support for the LGBTQ2S+ community. 

But that support is undermined by his own actions.  As a student at a Jesuit university in San Franciso in the 1989, Kenney played a leading role in  organizing the petition that triggered a referendum on San Francisco’s domestic partnership law, which, among other things, allowed same-sex couples the same hospital visitation rights as heterosexual couples.

Kenney even boasted about his role in overturning the law at a political event in 2000.

“I became president of the pro-life group in my campus and helped to lead an ultimately successful initiative petition, which led to a referendum which overturned the first gay spousal law in North America,” the younger Kenney said with a smile.

Kenney’s efforts in the referendum helped overturn the domestic partnership law by less than 2,000 votes;, something marked with the headline “A Dark Day for Gay Rights” in the Bay Area Reporter.

Actions like these continued throughout Kenney’s political career. As a Member of Parliament in 2005, he famously said gays can marry, but not each other and that “marriage is by definition about a potentially procreative relationship.” In 2019 as premier of  Alberta, his governmen passed Bill 8, rolling back protections for LGBTQ2S+ students, including making it legal for schools to contact parents if a child joins a gay-straight alliance. 

Kenney’s speechwriter came under fire last year after a series of columns from the ‘90s surfaced where the speechwriter called homosexuality “socially destructive” and argued that “AIDS gets more ink than it deserves.” While Kenney said he disagreed with his speechwriter’s sentiments, het refused to drop candidate Mark Smith from his party’s ticket in 2019 after 2013 audio surfaced of Smith suggesting that “homosexual love” is not “good love.” Smith was elected and continues to serve as an MLA in Kenney’s government. He said the comments were taken out of context.

Throughout all of this, and every time a new example surfaces, Kenney has vehemently claimed his positions have changed, or these quotes are taken out of context.

“My opposition to [the San Francisco legislation] was based on a concern that it would be a precursor to changing the definition of marriage, which I opposed,” rather than “a desire to limit partners from visiting their loved ones in hospitals,” Kenney wrote in a 2019 email to The Sprawl. He’s also said his views on same-sex marraige have changed, and he now supports it. 

And yet every year or two when comments or situations like this slip out from Kenney’s carefully worded messaging, the pile of context they’re taken in gets larger. At what point is a two-line apology or a condemnation of past remarks not enough?

There are many takeaways to be had from Kenney’s presser this week. The ongoing anti-vaccination, anti-restriction blockade at the Coutts border crossing in Alberta influenced his choice to remove restrictions. He does believe that lifting restrictions will work (even though the “best summer ever” failed spectacularly the last time he said that in 2021).

And most of all, Kenney’s misguided analogy between the unvaccinated and HIV/AIDS patients shows he’s still the same man who fought to separate dying AIDS patients from their spouses in the 1980s and to make life harder for LGBTQ2S+ youth in his province to this day.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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