• Health Equity Alliance

World AIDS Day 2016

World AIDS Day is held on the 1st December each year and is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died. It is a time to reflect on the history of HIV and the HIV movement, on the lives lost, and the progress made.

Many today were not alive during the early years of the HIV epidemic. Others were merely children, vaguely aware that something was wrong. And for those who did not experience it directly the pain, panic and neglect of the 80’s has settled into a hazy memory. The memory of this time has been crowded in into our brains with all the other factoids, the parachute pants, the MC hammer lyrics…

In the meantime, the world has changed, and HIV has changed with it. Today activists and providers can realistically envision a world without AIDS. Scientific trials are actively exploring cures and vaccinesAnd modern HIV treatment has made the virus less of an acute, life-or-death ailment and more of a life-threatening chronic disease.

But there is still a lot to learn from the history of HIV and the HIV movement… particularly at this moment in history.

Some things persist – most notably, HIV stigma. In the early days of the HIV epidemic, the virus was seen as a reflection of an immoral lifestyle. Labeled Gay Related Infectious Disease (GRID) it was thought to affect gay and bisexual men exclusively. It was perceived as a sign of moral decay, that affected people perceived as morally decayed. And as such it was ignored.

Unlike parachute pants, MC hammer, and other trends – HIV stigma never went away – it continues to thrive today. A survey in Poz magazine of PLWH found that 79% of participants had experienced discrimination because of their status. 63% of participants had been discriminated against by a family member. 55% in a health care facility. 26% in the workplace.

This stigma sticks with you. It presents as one of the primary challenges in addressing HIV. It compounds a challenge disease by fostering serious mental health issues – feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. It contributed to barriers to getting or keeping a job or housing, and challenges getting good health care. Stigma prevents people from getting tested for HIV or getting the care they need, which leads to further transmission. In this sense, stigma literally kills.

Unlike joggers, neon colors, tight jeans and colored spandex, HIV Stigma isn’t retro – it’s just plain wrong.

On another front - for many years the Government, the President, would not even acknowledge the existence of HIV. Today, we stand waiting to welcome in an administration that has created a lot of anxiety within the HIV Community. We’re watching the construction of a cabinet populated by politicians who support ‘conversion therapy’, including a famously anti-LGBTQ vice president who suggested that the Ryan White Cares Act should be reauthorized “only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.”

If the Reagan administration was guilty through inaction there is very real fear that the Trump administration will directly dismantle the programs and services that currently exist to support people living with HIV and prevent the spread of the virus.

Yet while the history of HIV teaches us that there is much to be afraid of, vigilant about, the history of the HIV movement teaches us that there is much to be inspired by.

The Down East AIDS Network, and countless other HIV service organizations throughout the US were founded by community members who were tired of watching their loved ones waste away and die… so they did something about it.  ACT UP, a nation-wide HIV activist network MADE a difference by taking to the streets, demanding attention, screaming in the face of indifference.  The movement changed the world.

The movement teaches us that when times are dark, when fear is rampant, we can turn to our community. It teaches us that we, together, we have power. We just have to be willing to scream loud enough.