For many Americans, June 5th was a day of introspection. It was hard to believe that, as of that date, the AIDS epidemic had lasted 30 years and, despite the remarkable advances we have made in medicine, prevention, and care, we are still facing many of the same challenges we did in the early days of HIV/AIDS.
1981 was a significant year in my life. In addition to it being the year in which we first heard about this mysterious disease that came to be called “AIDS,” it was also the year I came out as a gay man. At the age of 23 I was in my first job as a journalist covering health care policy development in Washington I was learning first-hand about the epidemic and its consequences. I remember thinking I was fortunate to have waited so long because if I had come out earlier I might already have been infected. And I remember thinking we would find the answer to this mystery just as we had with so many illnesses before. I certainly never thought I would spend the next 30 years living and working with AIDS as such a central focus.
But here we are, 30 years later and, in the United States alone, more than 600,000 of our friends, lovers, neighbors, and family members have died. Like many of my friends, I bought a black suit and learned the words to “Amazing Grace” much sooner than I ever thought I would. I attended funerals and memorial services, marches and memorials, vigils, and sit-ins. I volunteered as an AIDS educator for Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington and I baked pies for Food & Friends. And I worked very hard to stay healthy and get tested routinely.
Thirty years of research and innovation have produced a combination of strategies that have been advanced by our community and our government. And, as the years have gone by, it has become a bit easier to be optimistic.
As we mark the 4th annual National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on September 27, there is more reason than ever to know with certainty that we are, indeed, making progress. Last November, researchers announced that a daily dose of an oral antiretroviral drug taken in combination with the consistent use of condoms reduced the risk of acquiring HIV infection by 44% among gay and bisexual men and transgender women who have sex with men. And when people stuck to their daily regimen and used condoms consistently the results were even better — up to 73%. This study has real-world applications, adding to the strategies that gay and bisexual men can use to significantly reduce their risk of infection.
Further research proved to us that when HIV-positive people began taking antiretroviral medications early, they not only help to protect their own immune systems, but they also reduce the risk of passing the virus to another person by 96%.
Our government’s response to HIV/AIDS has also improved. At the beginning of the epidemic, our leaders couldn’t bring themselves to say the word “AIDS.” Scientists and public health professionals had to fight for funding for their work and to get the results to the public. Today, our leaders speak out and act against AIDS. A year ago, President Obama issued the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy and a detailed plan for implementation was developed and put in place. Passage of the Affordable Care Act means single men who don’t earn enough to buy health insurance will be eligible for Medicaid in every state of the union and private insurance companies will be permanently banned from discriminating against people with HIV by refusing them coverage or charging them ridiculous premiums that put insurance out of reach. But there is still debate about trying to repeal the health law and take away the benefits and the hope. So we can’t rest.
That fact was driven home for me in August when the CDC released a report estimating more than 50,000 new HIV infections every year in the U.S. And I was blown away by this statistic: gay and bisexual men represent 60% of all new infections but, according to the CDC, we are only 2 to 4% of the population. And among young gay men of color, the rate of infections is rising, while rates among all other men and women are either flat or falling. For me, that news sets off sirens in my head. We cannot afford to lose a significant part of another generation of gay men. What are we doing to change this? How do we help young men protect themselves and their partners?
Today, the rights accorded LGBT Americans are growing stronger. We can marry in more places, serve openly in the military, and are gaining a real place at the table when decisions are made about our lives and our health. This contrasts to the real lack of progress in preventing new infections. Now, more than ever, we need to recharge our batteries and feel that same sense of urgency we may have lost over the last 30 years.