Why ACT UP Has Declared War on the New HIV Pandemic

Why ACT UP Has Declared War on the New HIV Pandemic

In a monumental statement, ACT UP New York has declared war on what it calls the new HIV epidemic, AIDS 2.0, which members say threatens to infect half of all young gay and bisexual men and transgender women by the time they reach 50.

According to the statement, ACT UP plans to demonstrate in the streets; work with government agencies to improve HIV prevention programs; protest federal, state, and city cuts to HIV prevention funding; research and distribute the latest safe sex and medical information in schools; and call out ineffective sex education programs.

Such a major call to action is reminiscent of ACT UP's work in the 1980s. It has shaken up the world before, and with an equally strong message and a new group of young activists, the organization intends to do it again. Matthew Rodriguez, editorial project manager at TheBody.com, is among its newest members.

"My activism is and always has been fueled by the idea of love," Rodriguez says. "That I could love myself enough to fight for my health and that I could love young gay men of color like me enough to fight for us to live. ACT UP was one of the few organizations I walked into where I felt like my life was of the utmost value, as valuable as anyone else's, and that those around me were willing to go out of their way to keep people like me healthy. That's really rare."  
ACT UP promoted its effort at the New York City Pride parade on June 30, where more than 100 activists marched with the group, chanting "One in two, could be you." The prediction of one in two young gay and bi men and trans women becoming HIV-positive by age 50 comes from projections based on the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since 1987, ACT UP NY has been one of the loudest voices in the fight against HIV and AIDS. It assured that the disease received attention during '80s and '90s, helping jump-start the production of AIDS drugs, and became a prime example of how grassroots activists can bring about change.

Activism around the disease is still needed, says Jim Eigo, who has been involved with ACT UP since the 1980s and was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague. He says New York City still fails to provide adequately for HIV-positive people.

"New York City spends almost nothing on HIV prevention beyond the funds it gets from the federal government," Eigo says. "When those funds are cut, as they have been over the past several years, the city, instead of securing alternative funding, cuts prevention services."
In the past 15 years, new HIV infection rates among young queer men and trans women have risen steadily, but ACT UP members media and the U.S. school system have done little in the way of education about the virus. And in 2010, only 3.3% of the CDC's discretionary AIDS budget went to services targeting these groups, even though they account for nearly two thirds of new infections. 

At the New York Pride event, the organization distributed condoms and lube along with its "Fuck Smarter" fact sheet, which offers information about how to have safer sex even without condoms, with the help of drugs that can help reduce transmission. Today, HIV prevention takes more than just promoting condom use, says Eigo. 

"New York City has to conduct research into what behavioral HIV prevention programs might be effective in 2013," Eigo states, "working with communities at risk to develop sex-positive, queer-friendly strategies that build on the early success of safer sex programs but recognize new prevention tools for a very different world."
(Photo Credit: Joseph Gilmore)
Infections among young gay men have risen 22% recently, and over 50% of young gay men who are infected with HIV don't know it, the ACT UP statement notes. Fifty percent of young gay black men are expected to be infected by the time they reach 35. Transgender women are being infected at 36 times the rate of men and 78 times the rate of other women, and approximately 15,000 AIDS-related deaths still occur every year in the U.S. More than 636,000 people in America have died of AIDS so far — more than the number of U.S. deaths in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and World War II combined.
ACT UP's next target is the New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which the group says does  little HIV prevention, even though gay, bi, and trans New Yorkers have been seroconverting at double the national rate, according to the department's own figures. If young gay men living in New York City continue to be infected at this rate, the city's HIV caseload will increase drastically. ACT UP  has pushed for the department to start an information campaign about post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, the use of medications that  can prevent HIV infection after exposure, and pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, the administration of drugs that can help decrease the likelihood of transmitting HIV during sex. The group is also calling for the agency to spend more on HIV prevention and update the data it uses on HIV and AIDS rates in the city.
ACT UP will demonstrate Thursday August 15 at 1 p.m. at the department's Gotham Center, 42-09 28th St., Long Island City, in the borough of Queens. Find more information here.

See pictures of ACT UP NY at New York City's Pride parade on the next pages.

Tags: Activism