This one is for the young advocates! More than likely, you’ve never known a world without HIV/AIDS. It may be tempting to think of HIV/AIDS as a manageable illness, at least in this country — just take your PrEP and you’ll be fine — but living with a disease, even a manageable one, isn’t as stress-free as it may seem. Besides, things haven’t always been the way they are now.
EVERY STORY HAS A BEGINNING
There is a long history in the battle to eradicate HIV/AIDS and to eliminate stigma for those living with the disease. When the illness that would later become known as AIDS hit American shores in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was literally referred to as “gay cancer.”
Eventually researchers learned the virus that caused AIDS could be transmitted a variety of ways, including through intravenous drug use. Not particularly fond of the groups of people first affected by the illness, during this period, our government was:
- Slow to address the epidemic
- Even slower to provide funding for any treatment, robbing individuals, families, and entire communities of dignity as people died
- Prevented researchers from being able to do serious research to find a cure
In order to draw more attention to an issue that was being overlooked at that point, grassroots organizations like ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) New York engaged in radical advocacy, including folks shutting down the area near Wall Street during a protest, chaining themselves to a balcony at the New York Stock Exchange, and infiltrating a national newscast to protest.
REMEMBER THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE US
But while ACT-UP may be one of the best-known activist groups, so many advocates have done so much for this country. People like Craig Harris, a Black man who demanded to be heard while the first major public health session on AIDS was taking place (without any input from People of Color). Harris soon became one of the founding members of the National Minority AIDS Council. Pernessa Seele, who worked with Black churches in New York City to engage in outreach to community members with HIV and AIDS, eventually establishing the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS (now known as the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS). Dr. Mathilde Krim, founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), and a fundraiser and consciousness-raiser extraordinaire. Pedro Zamora, who, on one of the biggest pop culture platforms in the country, dared to live publicly and love and be loved as a gay man with AIDS.
The work of these activists ensured that the issue never left the public consciousness. Their work helped to increase awareness, educate millions, and lessen stigma. Not only did these advocates fight to ensure that medication be developed that would better improve the health outcomes of those living with the illness, but also ensured that as many people as possible would have access to these lifesaving drugs – regardless of income.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
So on this 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, and always, let’s thank and honor all activists — for their sacrifices, for doing the hard work, and for doing it while facing overwhelming disregard and mistreatment from society at large. We celebrate their lives, many of whom didn’t extend long enough to witness the results of their efforts. On this World AIDS Day, let’s all reflect a little too.
But this is not a day just to look back. On this anniversary, for those of you advocating for fairer social justice outcomes — whether it’s working against racism, homophobia and transphobia; fighting Islamophobia; working on behalf of the homeless; and yes, continuing the work of ensuring there be fairer HIV/AIDS policies and treatment — THANK YOU. Your willingness to speak out, show up, and support others is amazing, and is affecting so many lives. So, thank you advocates, for all you’ve done to truly make this world a better place. In these trying times, it can sometimes seem like progress is hopeless, that you’re taking two steps forward only to have to go about 10 steps back. But as the work of countless HIV/AIDS advocates have shown us, no situation is truly hopeless, and the only true constant is change. The battle against HIV and AIDS, once a death sentence, has shown us that.
Want to do your bit for HIV/AIDS prevention? Use safer sex practices during sexual activity. And know your status! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone between 13 and 64 get tested at least once. Learn more about testing.