“I check the mirror for spots, irregularities, telltale signs.” — from The Adodi Muse, “It Begins”
This is a peculiar anniversary that marks a generation, a span from birth to full grown, three full decades, since the onset of the greatest public health issue of our time.
Loss is what this commemoration signifies most. Loss beyond measure, rendered in memorial quilt snapshots of real lives lived, loss evoked in the chants of survivors who touched the untouchable, fed their beloved, wiped up the puke and shit, and were given neither a passing mention nor a place at the mourning table. I am 25 years old when I first feel swollen lymph glands. I have only just begun when “It begins.”
“So it is better to speak remembering that we were never meant to survive.” – From Audre Lorde, “Litany for Survival.”
What must never be forgotten are the responses to the plague, the best and the worst it summoned from us. It is in our responses to AIDS that we discovered and recreated its meanings. In the face of a NYC City Hall representative asking why he should care about “300 faggots (who) fucked each other to death,” gay activists crafted the first safer sex literature. Other Countries, a black gay mens’ writing collective, gave voice to our will to endure, to love and exchange pleasure.
Gay men struggled through tangled interests of sexual agency, free will and community survival to craft initiatives that laid the groundwork for AIDS activism and safer sex education. HIV-positive women of color raised their voices demanding greater inclusion in the arenas of HIV treatment, research and awareness. Injection drug users scorned by all others rose to self advocacy against daunting odds.
By what standard do we measure AIDS at 30, the distance between that incredible then and this unsure now? Certainly we have garnered key victories over this stretch. Consider the contrasts (and parallels) between a president who killed through his silence and the president who launched a National HIV/AIDS plan and lifted the federal ban on needle exchange.
We had breakthroughs that delivered us from dependency on AZT monotherapy to our current expanded toolkit. We have rejoiced over recent success stories that reported effective microbicides, the potential of PrEP, and the HPTN 052 study which demonstrates how treatment yields prevention.
While these gains must be noted, we have to confront the disturbing underside of this milestone. The U.S remains a nation of incredible possibilities and insufferable contradictions. In the face of a recession and slashed state funding, key pharmaceuticals raised their already sky high prices on vital meds.
Then there are the waiting lists. In July 2010, the Obama administration’s $25 million bandage in response to the $125 million requested to boost the AIDS Drug Assistance Program was an affront to activists across the country. As of May 19, 2011, there were 8,310 individuals in 13 states on ADAP waiting lists. Georgia has the second largest list with over 1,515 people. Most of these lists are within the South, the region that also holds the most new infections.
It is evident that the time to act is overdue. Many of us have grown comfortable with the successes of the past 30 years, as if these histories were not available to us.
Arrange a screening of Jean Carlomusto’s “Sex in an Epidemic” or Marlon Riggs’ “Black Is Black Ain’t” and note that none of our freedoms were gained or maintained without struggle. Convene public question-and-answer sessions and informal discussions at Starbucks about ADAP and PrEP. Call Georgia Equality and ask how you can bring your community’s concerns to the 2012 XIX International AIDS Conference.
This anniversary should prompt us to mobilize our organizations into action. Gay men and transgenders across the nation, especially young black gay men, are becoming infected at rates much higher than any other group.
Incarcerated individuals in Georgia are denied access to condoms due to puritanical policies. Transgenders are criminalized on sight by Midtown police and denied employment and access to shelter. The statewide attacks on women’s reproductive rights will resume uncontested unless we take a stand.
Let this then be an occasion to ACT UP again. If 30 years of HIV has taught us anything, it is that Our Silence = Death.
Craig Washington has been living with HIV for 25 years and serving communities through writing, teaching, organizing advocacy, and HIV prevention work. He can be reached at www.craigwerks.com.