My coming out days was lived out in Chicago, Illinois (1965-1982). I also came out prior to HIV/AIDS being part of our everyday lives.
The gay community in Chicago during my time there was party central but also a close nit community. Over the years I developed close friendships with a group of people that at its peak numbered 15.
We all hung out together, spent time at the clubs together and I guess by today’s standards could have had a reality TV show made about us.
We compared notes on our boyfriends, went to parties, made gossip about straight people, got jobs, participated in the community and marched for our rights. We were always there for one another no matter what the circumstance.
I didn’t think about then but now I know we had something special-we had a group of people who had become VERY close friends and became a support system to one another that I don’t suppose will ever be repeated.
Starting in 1981 through 1982 the group started to drift apart. Some got jobs that took them out of Chicago and into other parts of the state, some got involved in long term relationships and moved to the suburbs, others found themselves struggling to find the love of their life or way through life as a gay man and lacking direction or support turned to heavy amounts of alcohol and drugs.
In June of 1982 needing a fresh start, I moved to Cincinnati where within a month of arriving I would meet the man I am still with today. The choice to move probably saved my life.
For you see the crushing and deadly wave that we would come to know as AIDS arrived in Chicago in the later part of 1982. By the time my partner and I had been together for 12 years, my best friend and I were the only ones still alive from that group of 15. None of them had reached the age of 40.
Today, as I write this at the age of 52 and in the 26th year of marriage (Yes, despite what the world says I am married), I am the only one left who is alive and HIV negative. My best friend died at the age of 47 after getting the disease because of cheating and abusive boyfriend.
I was no angel in those days and I guess every year at this time when I think of my friends who died much to soon I get a case of survivor’s guilt. Hey, that is another blog.
I have also been an ordained minister since 1986, so I have 20 plus years of pastoral ministry. In those years I have probably done funerals for more people under the age of 50 then most pastors do in an entire career.
What is really heart breaking is that HIV/AIDS is not done yet. Despite media spin “that this is now a manageable disease”. That is a lie and severe distortion of the truth. AIDS still kills at an alarming rate and the rate of infection is on the rise.
“AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, with an estimated 38.6 million people living with HIV, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history. Despite recent, improved access to antiretroviral treatment and care in many regions of the world, the AIDS epidemic claimed an estimated 3.1 million (between 2.8 and 3.6 million) lives in 2005 of which, more than half a million (570,000) were children.”
Every month I still counsel people who are newly infected. Every month I am there with someone who has died or in support of a partner, family and friends who has lost someone. Our congregation has a number of people who have tested positive and are at various stages of health challenges.
My best friend in Atlanta is HIV positive and while he is healthy and living a productive life…the meds that he has to take are anything but pleasant. The side effects require he not get too much sun, eat the correct foods and not get too stressed, as the reaction is more then a pain in the ass, it is debilitating.
So I guess I am writing this today to remind folks the AIDS pandemic is not over. Not by a long shot. We cannot afford to get comfortable. We cannot afford to not continue to educated, stress prevention, and harm reduction (translation, safe sex and needle exchanging).
We must remember God’s people are dying. “A third of these deaths are occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, retarding economic growth and destroying human capital. Antiretroviral treatment reduces both the mortality and the morbidity of HIV infection, but routine access to antiretroviral medication is not available in all countries. HIV/AIDS stigma is more severe than that associated with other life-threatening conditions and extends beyond the disease itself to providers and even volunteers involved with the care of people living with HIV.”
I am asking the readers of this blog to get involved in harm reduction, to recognize this pandemic knows no boundaries.
I am asking folks to adopt the 4 principles as put forth by the Prevention Justice Mobilization organization.
Here are 4 principles that must be reflected in a focused, justice-based HIV prevention strategy that can actually stop HIV/AIDS:
1) HONESTY AND PROTECTION: UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO SEXUAL HEALTH EDUCATION, HARM REDUCTION AND HIV PREVENTION
Prevention justice asserts the fundamental right of all people (including people living with HIV) to expect every effective and ethical approach to be employed to prevent HIV transmission. Everyone at risk of transmitting or acquiring HIV must have access to scientifically based, culturally and linguistically- appropriate sexual health, harm reduction and HIV prevention information, materials and tools.
The federal government bears primary responsibility to fund these efforts at adequate levels (at least $2 billion per year across programs, as noted in the AIDS Budget and Appropriation Coalition's chart on FY 2008 Appropriations for Federal HIV/AIDS Programs), and must end bans on funding for effective programs such as syringe exchange.
The next President of the U.S. should develop a results-oriented AIDS strategy that incorporates prevention justice principles and policies.
If political and cultural barriers impede such access (such as bans restricting access to sterile needles/syringes, and condoms in prisons and jails; comprehensive, accurate sexual information and skills for school youth or detainees; or the gag rule on naming “harm reduction” in federally-funded research and programs), then funders and providers of prevention services must also invest in strategies to remove these barriers.
2) IT'S NOT ONLY WHAT YOU DO, IT'S ALSO WHO YOU ARE: HIV/AIDS AS PROOF OF INJUSTICE
All prevention campaigns and strategies must include explicit goals to lessen and eventually eliminate structural risk factors that lead to community-level or population-level vulnerability, such as homelessness, high rates of incarceration, domestic and other gender-based violence, lack of adequate access to high-quality health care, and/or a living wage or income.
They must include plans to eliminate any significant disparities among populations in HIV prevalence and risk, including those associated with race and ethnicity, immigration status and language, gender and gender identification, sexual orientation, nationality, age and area of residence. It must also address disparities in treatment, care and support for people living with HIV as a key component for HIV prevention. Resources must prioritize eliminating the greatest disparities in HIV prevalence and incidence.
3) AIDS DOESN'T DISCRIMINATE… BUT SOCIETY DOES: END VULNERABILITY BY AFFIRMING THE DIGNITY AND RIGHTS OF ALL:
All HIV prevention efforts must include an affirmation of the dignity and rights to equality of every individual (including those living with HIV/AIDS) and must actively confront social, cultural and legal norms and forces that prevent or impede realization of such rights and dignity, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia; HIV and drug-use stigma; or discriminatory legal status.
Any programs that claim to prevent HIV by attacking the dignity and rights of individuals -- such as abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that encourage sexism, homophobia and AIDS stigma -- must be defunded and repudiated.
Since rights are meaningless without the means to realize and use them, all HIV prevention must include or ally with efforts to provide every human with the economic and other material necessities of life, including adequate housing, employment or income, physical and mental care, food and nutrition, and drug treatment – the lack of which have each been shown to drive HIV spread.
4) DON'T BLAME US OR SHAME US FOR WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW: RESOURCES, ETHICS, AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT IN CRITICAL RESEARCH AND MONITORING
Communities and programs lack the resources and tools to fill the gaps in our knowledge base on HIV prevention. HIV prevention research efforts must be funded in sufficient quantity and diversity as to quickly solve critical unanswered questions and provide essential tools and technologies we are currently missing.
Research must focus on providing tools to assess community vulnerability and structural risk and to guide the design of efficient, comprehensive, multifactorial prevention strategies, as well as investigating new individual behavioral or biomedical interventions, and must include answers to relevant questions regarding prevention issues for people living with HIV.
Further, government and private entities engaging in research and policies must provide timely, understandable and accurate information on their work and proposals, actively soliciting and integrating diverse community input into resource allocation and policy formulation.
The basic elements of counting and describing people living with, or at risk for HIV infection (surveillance categories and systems, testing, case reporting, partner notification and counseling) must not blindly follow previous, narrow medical public health models, but must reflect the other principles described above. These systems and methods must be designed and implemented with awareness of their direct or indirect impact on individual dignity as well as community health and vulnerability.
So tonight I write to remember, to honor and to place in memorial all those who have died.
Tonight, I write to proclaim the hope and healing for all those who live and are affected by this virus. For you I will not be silent. I will speak out persistently, loudly and with a clear voice for justice.
Tonight, I write for my friends who have been received in the loving arms of God: Timothy, Gerald, Brandon, Billy the nerd, William, Paddy, Tyrone, Tom, Chuck, Thomas, Sammy, Joey, Philip and John…I love you, I will never forget you.