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Fall 2022

Bearing Witness

Steven Thrasher has spent his career reporting on social justice. Why can’t he stop fighting? By Clare Milliken

Image: Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

“I go into stories that are maybe so controversial that no one else will talk about them, to report on what I find. It’s important to show the truth. I wouldn’t say that the work I do is directly activism,” says journalist and professor Steven Thrasher, “but it can be used by activists.” In one particular case, showing that truth helped overturn a conviction and change a law.  

For six years, Thrasher followed the case of Michael Johnson, a gay Black man in St. Louis who was sentenced in 2015 to more than 30 years in prison for not disclosing his HIV-positive status to his sexual partners. Initially, Thrasher says, national advocacy groups would not go near the case. 

“The first two years that I worked on the case, none of the big LGBTQ organizations or civil rights organizations would even answer my phone calls,” he says. “This was 2014, between two major Supreme Court rulings around same-sex marriage equality. These groups were really invested in that issue because it was a ‘clean’ story that was organized around helping lots more people get married, and marriage is something that reads well in society.” 

Published in Buzzfeed News from 2014 to 2019, Thrasher’s multipart investigation of the Johnson story eventually got the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, and his reporting was used in the appeal of Johnson’s case. The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District overturned Johnson’s conviction on the grounds that the original trial was “fundamentally unfair.” And in 2021, two years after Johnson’s release from prison, Missouri changed its HIV criminalization laws, reducing the minimum sentence for transmitting HIV and increasing the burden of proof for a felony conviction. 

Steven Thrasher

Steeped in activism from an early age — his parents were part of the movement to end apartheid in South Africa — Thrasher has reported on policing, LGBTQ rights, racism and HIV/AIDS for more than a decade. He began his career in New York in the early 2000s, where he worked “all kinds of odd jobs” in film and TV production, including roles at Saturday Night Live. After a year at StoryCorps, and after publishing his first piece in The New York Times, Thrasher took a job at The Village Voice in 2009 and was named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (now NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists) in 2012. 

As a U.S.-based columnist for The Guardian, Thrasher covered the August 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. During that reporting, Thrasher came to understand the relationships between poverty, policing and viruses like HIV/AIDS. 

“As Americans were beginning to understand what was happening in Ferguson, they were starting to see these overlapping maps of police violence and Black poverty,” he says. “In addition to those maps, I started to see an overlapping map of HIV/AIDS. And years later, I saw an overlapping map of COVID-19.” 

Thrasher’s first book, The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Disease and Inequality Collide, builds on that discovery, exploring the ways in which viruses like HIV and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) reflect and exacerbate social structures like racism, ableism, heterosexism and capitalism. 

The inaugural Daniel H. Renberg Chair of social justice in reporting at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Thrasher sat down with Northwestern Magazine’s Clare Milliken to talk about the book, his reporting and the role of social media in his life and career. 

“I’ve spent a lot of my career reporting on ... situations that seem hopeless, knowing that I still have to bear witness and say what’s happening, even if I can’t fix it.” — Steven Thrasher

What drew you to Michael Johnson’s story? 

When I first heard about the case, it sounded really salacious and really tawdry — this story of this young man purposely infecting people with HIV, which did not turn out to be the case. When I finally met Johnson in jail, I found out that he was pretty functionally illiterate and that every disaster of the criminal justice system was happening at the same time. 

There were all kinds of problems in Johnson’s trial. There was bad scientific understanding of HIV and AIDS. The law at the heart of the prosecution’s case was based on the idea that AIDS was a definite death sentence, as it likely was in the 1980s when the law was written, but did not take into account that there’s now medication that lets people live a normal-length life if they get access to it. 

I was horrified that this young man was basically being sentenced to life in prison, so I decided that I was going to, in some form or another, stay with him until he got out. 

A couple years after Johnson was arrested, a statistic came out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projecting that one out of every two Black men who have sex with men would become HIV-positive in their lifetime. This [shocked] me. I thought that if HIV affected a different population, the United States and its various health infrastructures would take it more seriously. But because it was happening with Black gay men, largely poor and often in the South, it wasn’t taken as seriously. And so I started using this case to try to untangle all these things. 

What is the viral underclass, as you define it? 

Courtesy of Steven Thrasher

There are two definitions that I use. On one hand it’s a theory exploring how, as marginalized people are made vulnerable to viruses, viruses are also used as justification for the policies and systems that marginalize people in the first place. 

The viral underclass is also a group of people experiencing the compounding effects of marginalization and increased vulnerability to viruses. For example, we’ve long known that people who are uninsured are the most likely to get COVID, be hospitalized and die of COVID. In the last round of COVID funding, the White House and Congress did not continue to fund COVID testing for people who don’t have insurance. A COVID test can cost $150, and for a family of four, that’s $600. They’re simply not going to get tested anymore. Because we’ve taken a tool away from the people who are most likely to get COVID — a tool that they could use to protect themselves — the virus is going to move more freely among those individuals. 

You’re very active on social media, particularly Twitter. What is the role of that platform in your life? 

When I’m using social media, I’m putting information out and I’m learning from other people. Certainly when I was reporting on the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, that learning was happening quite quickly through Twitter, particularly Black Twitter, and with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. All these ideas were circulating — between academics, activists, reporters, people affected by police violence — in ways that were fulfilling and interesting and that brought down a lot of walls that often segregate different people. 

Twitter has helped me listen to and learn from how young people are talking, what ideas they have and how they’re thinking differently about things. I also really love seeing how young people are teaching each other about queerness, trans identities, sexuality and public health. When I was a teenager in the 1990s, I was able to get information at my local library, but the internet wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to offer that kind of information, so I love seeing how they’re teaching each other about these things. 

Has your thinking on particular issues evolved or changed, perhaps as a result of that social media engagement? 

I began my journalism career around same-sex marriage. Marriage equality was an important topic in my own family history. My parents met in the 1950s in Nebraska and had to go to Iowa to get married, because it was still illegal in about 10 states for an interracial couple to get married. 

I’m for marriage equality, but I didn’t understand some people’s criticisms about the movement originally. When I started writing about marriage equality in the early 2000s, I had not yet encountered politics that were critical of marriage, saying marriage [equality] wasn’t a good endpoint, that it privileged people in a certain way [and that it] was going to pigeonhole what gay politics could do. As I covered the marriage equality movement and the gays in the military movement, I eventually realized that there were all these other issues that those movements were not addressing [for LGBTQ populations], including disproportionate homelessness, financial precarity, health disparities, access to employment, and employment discrimination. And through my work on HIV and AIDS, and later COVID-19, I think looking at the root causes of those inequities will do more for LGBTQ people than just marriage equality. 

You say in your book that “these United States are as endlessly heartbreaking as they are endlessly fascinating.” What gives you hope? 

I feel hopeful in thinking about how many people want to help one another. So many people do not want to go back to “normal.” When an estimated 20 million people went out protesting for George Floyd in the summer of 2020, it was about racial justice. But a reason why it was so many people — and I’m not cynical about this — is because a lot of people were stuck at home, and they wanted to feel like they were a part of something bigger, and they had the time to do it. So when they left their houses in large numbers, it wasn’t to go to Disneyland that summer. It wasn’t to go to the movies. It was to stand in solidarity and be tear-gassed alongside their fellow citizens demanding a better world. 

I think a lot of people have gone through — and are still going through — the challenges of these last two years, wanting to create a better world. Having reflected on their lives and values, they want to create more justice and love in the world. That gives me a lot of hope. 

What is the proudest moment of your career? 

When Michael Johnson got out of prison. 

It’s not an easy thing, for him or for me, to manage a relationship with a source. It’s not exactly a friendship, even though I think we care about each other a lot. I felt very honored that he wanted me there when he was released and wanted me to be the one to share his story. 

I’ve spent a lot of my career reporting on and doing research about situations that seem hopeless, knowing that I still have to bear witness and say what’s happening, even if I can’t fix it. 

The dream of a lot of journalists is that our work leads to some kind of change. And I think our work often does, but not in ways that are always so obvious, and certainly we don’t always live to see the results. 

I didn’t know if I would live to see Michael get out of prison. Not only did I live to see it, but he got out 25 years early. 

Clare Milliken is senior writer and producer in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications. 

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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