It’s funny how much power we assign to numbers and rankings. As a child, I can remember the playground conversations of children picking their “top friends.” Many recall the sting of being the last to be picked for sports teams in gym. Early on we learn that there is distinct significance to where we rank in society – and how others view us. The power of the social caste system increases as we grow older; high school greets us with senior superlatives denoting you as “the most popular” or “the best dressed.” By the time we enter adulthood, it is clear that the way we make our mark is in numeric listings of status. We want to be ranked in the top of our class, in hopes that one day we may be employed by the top company in our field. In fact, we even go on to rank places as “the best place to live” or the “the best place to raise children.”
For the LGBT community, there’s a whole other system of rank and file. Each year we vote for the best of Atlanta – honoring those who exemplify what it means to be gay. We’ve been touted as “the Gayest city in America” (and then told that maybe we’re not so gay after all). Various rankings and reports have claimed us to be a Mecca for young gay professionals, African-American gays, and many other cultural groups. Well, this past week the CDC bestowed upon us one more accolade by ranking Atlanta eighth among the nation’s metro areas in its ratio of HIV infections to overall population.
As an HIV/AIDS educator, this figure wasn’t news to me. In fact, we’ve known the information for a while. Still, I’m curious what the general consensus is as a city? Are we proud that we as a city are a hotbed for new HIV infections? As a community, are we satisfied that men who have sex with men (MSM) are now the only group on the report whose numbers continued to have an unfaltering rise? We’re 30+ years into this battle, and yet we’ve somehow failed to connect our messaging with the LGBT community.
Each week, I struggle to find a way to connect with our community of Gay/Bi men. I visit bars and clubs. I host discussion groups. I hope and pray that someone will listen – and somehow, my message will save a life or change a behavior. I have made this my work, and in doing so I have made HIV/AIDS awareness and education my number one priority. HIV/AIDS has made us number eight in new infections, and that won’t change until we make eliminating HIV/AIDS our number one priority as a community.
As I read the CDC report that ranked us at number eight, I thought that we had it all wrong. We’ve been taught wrong from the beginning. We don’t want to be at the top of the list – we want to be at the bottom. At least in this case we do! We want to be the state with the lowest ratio of HIV infections to overall population. With everyone’s help, we could be just that. So, starting today with this blog, I initiate a new campaign for Atlanta. “Atlanta: HIV Free At Last!” I think it’s a dream that even Dr. King could have gotten behind. Spread the word!