Twenty-five at 25

BY

October 29 2009 12:00 AM ET

There are heroes -- even superheroes, as you will see -- in any movement. Most of the time, though, historical figures receive the accolades because, well, let's face it, what they accomplished was so legendary. But there are heroes on the HIV front who work among us today, exerting their influence and wielding power. For this issue of HIV Plus, which closes out the "aughties," the 2000-2009 decade, in which many of our country's AIDS service organizations reached their 25-year service mark, we honor these modern-day wonders.

We've partnered with AIDS Project Los Angeles, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, to pay homage to 25 LGBT leaders who are actively involved in making sure that the fact that HIV continues to have a disproportionate impact on gay men is not overlooked. To many experts in the field, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed their impressions that a "second wave" of the AIDS epidemic in gay America is under way. And now, with men of color and not just people who were once affected by what was disparagingly called the "gay, white disease" making up a majority of the newly diagnosed cases, this attention to the virus's reach is desperately needed.

We realize, of course, that by no means are there only 25 LGBT leaders who are creating the breakthroughs and the messages that are keeping the momentum of the movement going. Many are less public in their efforts; some probably don't even themselves yet realize the mission they've embarked on. We salute them all just as much. And as their fight continues, or begins, we hope that you too will give a salute to these women and men who we honor here -- as well as their magnificent predecessors, who set examples of almost superhuman feats.

Peter Anton, MD
One hears a lot about the role that blood plays in HIV disease: blood-based viral loads, antibodies in the blood to the virus, and so on. But Peter Anton says there's a part of the body that's more vulnerable to HIV's cellular attack-the gastrointestinal tract, or gut. "The intestine, which holds 60% to 80% of the body's immune system cells, is where HIV first goes after infection.

Studies have shown that within seven to 21 days after infection, HIV has depleted the CD4 cells in the gut while the same cells in the blood and lymph nodes are still not affected," explains Anton, who is director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for HIV Prevention Research.

In addition to working to better understand HIV's impact on the GI tract to uncover avenues toward new vaccines or treatments, Anton also is focusing on the role of the gut in direct HIV prevention, which is where infections occur through anal sex.

"This is important not only for men but for women too. Studies have shown women worldwide have a lot of rectal sex," he says. "So you can do all the HIV outreach possible about using condoms for vaginal sex, but if we don't start making people more aware that the rectum is the number 1 compartment in the body for HIV infection, we'll still be seeing high infection rates." --B.A.

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George Ayala
George Ayala is fighting hard to reverse one of the AIDS pandemic's most dangerous disparities. Although the group hit hardest by HIV in much of the world is men who have sex with men, less than 2% of global HIV funding is directed toward them.

"In more than 90 countries there's no data at all on gay men; it's like they don't exist," says Ayala, executive officer of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV.

To help establish services for MSM, the organization crafted a three-year action plan this summer to raise funds and assist groups around the world-from local programs in hard-hit towns to large-scale international outreach efforts. "The plan leverages our strengths in network development, information exchange, education, and advocacy to bolster the health and human rights of MSM globally," he says. "It's not going to be easy, but we're ready to roll our sleeves up and get to work." --B.A.

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A. Cornelius Baker
Cornelius Baker was home from college in 1981 when he heard that a young man he'd idolized in high school was very sick. "To have seen smart, talented people taken away immediately," he recalls, "I just thought, God, you have to do what you have to do, and I have to be involved."

Beyond just involving himself, Baker relinquished his youthful ambitions to work in theater and went on to become executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS and, later, Washington, D.C.'s Whitman-Walker Clinic.

Today, as HIV targets black gay men more prevalently than any other demographic, he is a much-needed leader at both the National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition and the Academy for Educational Development Center on AIDS and Community Health. --B.R.

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Robert Breining
It's hard to imagine that Philadelphian Robert Breining, founder of the "POZIAM" Internet radio show and related website, was once apprehensive about disclosing his serostatus -- or even acknowledging his HIV infection to himself.

"Since I wasn't on meds, it just didn't sink in," says the 30-year-old, who was diagnosed in 2001. "It took me five years to accept it and to be able to talk about it."

Today, Breining is unabashedly candid about having HIV and all the other intimate details of his life, as are the guests on his radio show. "I want to show everyone that there's so much more to living with HIV than just sickness and death," he says of the weekly broadcasts, which are cohosted by fellow HIVers Jack Mackenroth and Jeromy Dunn.

"POZIAM" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio.com/POZIAM. The social-networking website is found online at POZIAM.com. --B.A.

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Susan Cohen
A premed class in organic chemistry nearly drove Susan Cohen from a career in the health arena. "I went running away," laughs Cohen, who is director of health education and prevention at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. "But eventually I found my way to public health and, in particular, issues related to sexual health."

As a college graduate in the late 1980s, Cohen also was drawn to the fight against HIV as she witnessed the disease's impact on Los Angeles's gay community. "It was clear to me what was happening was rooted in public health and social justice issues like safer sex, access to clean needles, access to health care, homophobia, and stigma. I felt compelled to help," she explains.

Since 2006, Cohen has spearheaded the L.A. center's HIV prevention outreach, mobile HIV and STD testing services, substance abuse prevention programs, and numerous other health initiatives. In 2007 her department created an ongoing Internet soap opera and interactive website -- called "In the Moment" -- that follows a group of gay men as they deal with issues around safer sex, substance use, Internet hookups, and other timely topics.

"We needed to reach guys where they are going. And today, that's online," Cohen says of the project. "It gives us a unique way to reignite dialogues about HIV, crystal meth, and risky behaviors among gay and bisexual men who might not otherwise be having those conversations." --B.A.

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Julie Davids
Unfailingly modest, Julie Davids prefers to call herself "a cog in the machine." This particular cog has been an instrumental force behind efforts to lower antiretroviral drug prices worldwide, to get condoms in Philadelphia jails, to expand access to sterile syringes, to increase opportunities for HIV-positive women in clinical trials, and to reduce bureaucratic red tape in HIV prevention campaigns at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With a r'sum' already weighted with acronyms -- ACT UP Philadelphia, Philadelphia FIGHT, and Health GAP -- in 2003 she founded the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, or CHAMP, which is busy training the next wave of HIV activist leaders. Davids, who defines herself as a "genderqueer dyke," says she sees her role as "a facilitator and amplifier of people's voices. I'm lucky to be a catalyst for what's already happening." --B.R.

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Tom Duane
"You think you scare me? You think you can make me back off? Nothin' scares me!" So said New York state senator Tom Duane to his colleagues in an impassioned 3 a.m. speech this summer that saved what looked like a doomed bill proposing rent caps for indigent New Yorkers with HIV.

The first openly gay and openly HIV-positive New York state senator when he was elected in 1998, Duane has made it his business to protect HIVers from discriminatory legislation and cuts in services. Now, as a member of a (famously razor-thin) majority in the state senate, he's fearlessly on the offense. "I've used my life experience in HIV and LGBT issues," he says. "It really drives my view of the world and how to make the world a better place." --B.R.

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John Duran
John Duran remembers exactly how he became an AIDS activist: working to defeat California's 1986 Proposition 64 ballot initiative, which would have forced HIVers into quarantine. "It was that fight and a promise I made to a very good friend -- the first person I knew to die of AIDS -- that made me committed to making a difference," says the 50-year-old attorney.

Although Duran's r'sum' since then is both lengthy and impressive -- he's defended members of ACT UP, was the trial attorney for the Los Angeles needle-exchange program, and won California's first medicinal marijuana test case, among many other accomplishments -- he's perhaps best known as the nation's first HIV-positive mayor. A West Hollywood city councilman since 2001, Duran served as mayor from 2004 to 2005 and again from 2007 to 2008.

"That really allowed me to be a public voice for people with HIV," he says. "It was very exciting. And very humbling." --B.A.

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Jennifer Flynn
When Jennifer Flynn cofounded the New York City AIDS Housing Network in 1998, the group's main target, the city's emergency housing program for homeless HIVers, seemed broken beyond repair: a stubbornly wasteful bureaucracy that only benefited the greed of slumlords. NYCAHN was so effective at strong-arming change, Flynn has essentially claimed victory and has taken her community organizing talents over to the Health Global Access Project, or Health GAP, where as managing director, she now fights for worldwide access to antiretroviral meds.

"She has a particular talent for connecting and engaging individuals from challenged backgrounds in affected communities and working with them and supporting them around advocating for themselves," says Marjorie J. Hill, chief executive officer of Gay Men's Health Crisis. "I think that is the best advocacy one can do." --B.R.

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W. David Hardy, MD
David Hardy knew he had found his career path when HIV began its onslaught among his gay male peers just as he was graduating from medical school.

"Really, what we were doing at the time was helping people die with dignity. But then in 1996 and 1997 people stopped dying and everything about HIV care changed," says Hardy, who now serves as director of the division of infectious diseases at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Patient care has evolved so rapidly throughout the pandemic that Hardy cofounded the Los Angeles Physicians AIDS Forum to help local doctors educate each other about the disease and its treatment. He shoots for a similar goal on a national level as director of education for the American Academy of HIV Medicine.

"There's still a great need for HIV caregivers to get together, share information, network with each other, and advocate locally and at the state and national levels," he says. "It makes us better doctors." --B.A.

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Marjorie J. Hill, Ph.D.
Marjorie J. Hill towers over those around her. A licensed clinical psychologist who served as the assistant commissioner for New York City's HIV services bureau and who is now the first black chief executive officer of a major LGBT organization, New York City'based Gay Men's Health Crisis, she is just shy of six feet tall. But as proud as she is of her accomplishments, she'd rather stay as down-to-earth as possible so that others might follow in her footsteps.

"People think that there's a different kind of animal that decides to assume leadership," she says. "I think both my initial work in HIV and my continued motivation comes from the people who are living with HIV, with dignity, and with tenacity." --B.R.

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Bob Huff
Bob Huff is the circumspect, levelheaded brainiac who works as well helping pharmaceutical companies understand the needs of patients as he does teaching HIVers about the latest cutting-edge medical research. Beginning in 1987 as a member of the Treatment and Data Committee of ACT UP, whose advocacy succeeded in speeding new therapies onto the market and promoting openness in HIV research, he went on to work for amfAR and helped found the AIDS Treatment Registry, an organization that tracked AIDS clinical trials.

After editing the Gay Men's Health Crisis "Treatment Issues" newsletter, he joined the Treatment Action Group, where he continues to fight for new developments in HIV care. "What I would really like to see is one more great breakthrough in the quality of treatment," he says, adding jokingly, "I'm sort of getting old and winding down!" --B.R.

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Bryan Levinson
Bryan Levinson sees himself as a social matchmaker for HIV-positive gay men. "More Barbra Streisand, less Carol Channing," chuckles the 40-year-old, who founded the social-networking association Strength in Numbers in Los Angeles seven years ago, driven largely by his own difficulties in meeting other HIVers. The organization's activities were such an immediate hit that SIN rapidly expanded to other cities and today reaches more than 35,000 men around the world, including through a new chapter in Argentina.

Now living in San Francisco, where he works as an attorney, Levinson aims to expand SIN's reach through the new, free website SINMen.net. He devotes his free time to developing the site and planning SIN's first Mexican cruise, scheduled for May 2010 [SINcruise.com].

"I don't make any money off any of this; everything I do is out of my own pocket," Levinson says of his passion for SIN. "But I like it that way because there's never any motive other than helping out other guys living with HIV." --B.A.

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Jack Mackenroth
Jack Mackenroth could've kept quiet. He could've told the Project Runway producers that his living with HIV was not to become another morsel of gossip for reality TV-obsessed couch potatoes to munch on. Once his season hit the air, two years ago, and he was thrust into the spotlight, he could've turned down the requests that he become a poster boy for HIV advocacy work. He could've ignored the avalanche of heartfelt e-mails from fans thrilled to see a robustly healthy role model fulfilling his own dreams.

With his superhero build and square-jawed good looks, Mackenroth, 40, never really saw any other option than to stay true to his own personal philosophy: to be out and proud about his HIV status, the red cape waving behind his neck. (Or perhaps he'd sport a simple pair of Speedos, since he has a side gig as a competitive swimmer.)

HIV-positive for nearly 20 years, the University of California, Berkeley, grad and former model-turned-Parsons alum and fashion slave has parlayed his appearance on the popular reality show into not just a television and design career but an opportunity to become a very public face of HIV -- including gracing the cover of HIV Plus in January/February 2008...naked!

Merck & Co., a major antiretroviral pharmaceutical company, hired him to work both as a public speaker and as a liaison to AIDS service organizations around the country. And on Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern, he cohosts the HIV-focused Internet radio show "POZIAM."

"I think -- in the grand scheme of life -- what do I want to be remembered for?" Mackenroth says. "Making pretty clothes is nice, and being on TV or whatever, but if you really make a difference in someone's life, that's a lot more important."

Called Living Positive by Design, his speaking tour aims to reduce stigma for HIVers, encourage them to take good care of their health, and provide them a sense of hope that they too can live out their ambitions. He has also started posting newsmagazine-style webisodes on the program's website, LivingPositivebyDesign.com.

"There's still a huge stigma wrapped around being HIV-positive," he says. "The more you talk about it and the more people see me -- and see me doing good and living a "normal life" -- then it normalizes HIV. I think anyone who's HIV-positive can do their part just by being open." --B.R.

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Brandon M. Macsata
As a "limousine Republican" who believes in both social and fiscal responsibility in government, Macsata has used his political consulting firm, the Macsata-Kornegay Group, to establish himself in Washington, D.C., as an advocate of both disability and HIV rights. Right-wing politics may seem an odd match for the chief executive officer of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but he says that Newt Gingrich, of all people, agrees that championing for the long-term cost savings provided by the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs makes for sound fiscal policy.

"I think there's so much need out there," says Macsata, who was infected with HIV in 2002. "And so often it's an issue that can be overshadowed by big government bailouts and other big issues of the day." --B.R.

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Tony Mills, MD
When Tony Mills was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, providing medical care to other HIVers was so psychologically overwhelming that he switched to the field of anesthesiology. "Not only did I feel like I couldn't do anything for my patients, since they were all dying," he says, "but it also was like facing my own mortality every day. I felt there was no hope for me either."

When his own health began to fail in the mid 1990s, Mills went on disability, but like so many other HIVers he rebounded dramatically upon the arrival of highly active antiretroviral therapy. His hope renewed, Mills opened a private HIV-focused practice in Los Angeles, through which he provides, he says, not only top-notch medical care to his patients but also inspiration.

"I want them to see that I am confident, that I will live a long and productive life, and that they will too," says the 48-year-old.

His own recovery was so encouraging that Mills even publicly talked about his experiences with HIV as a candidate in the 1998 International Mr. Leather contest, which he won. "There was still a lot of stigma in the gay community at the time," Mills says of deciding to compete. "I wanted to show people that I'm a strong, healthy man who also happens to have HIV, and that's OK." --B.A.

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Todd Murray
Influenced by heroes such as Pedro Zamora and the ACT UP leaders of the 1980s and '90s, Todd Murray, who was infected at age 20 in 2001, is the future of AIDS activism. After attending a Ryan White National Youth Conference in 2004, he realized how few AIDS organizations were targeting youths, even though half of new HIV infections are in people under 25. So he founded a public-speaking organization called Hope's Voice International and, eventually, its companion visibility campaign, "Does HIV Look Like Me?"

Operating out of Salem, Ore., Murray's M.O. is to use inspirational -- as opposed to fear-based -- messages to both reduce HIV stigma and prevent transmission among young people around the United States and in several countries abroad as well. "My work, it celebrates the realities of our lives," he says. --B.R.

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Valerie Spencer
Valerie Spencer says she'll eagerly step into the national spotlight to advocate for her transgender peers. "I have no problem speaking out. Sometimes they literally have to pull me away from the microphone at conferences," she laughs.

As one of the country's first openly transgender AIDS activists, the 42-year-old Spencer has spent the past 20 years striving to foster self-esteem among trans men and women, including through her work as founder of the Los Angeles-based Transcend Empowerment Institute, which she says is the key to stopping HIV's relentless spread in transgender communities.

"The whole conversation really needs to look at why people say, 'Fuck it! I'm not going to use a condom,' " she insists. "We need to help people build self-worth and learn to love themselves so that they stop making those kinds of harmful decisions." --B.A.

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Peter Staley
His activism is the stuff of legend. Direct-action events at Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral, the New York Stock Exchange, Burroughs Wellcome headquarters, Jesse Helms's condom-sheathed home -- Peter Staley was there. Front and center. Sometimes tossed into jail. This original front man of ACT UP -- HIV-positive for over a quarter century now -- took on the giants of Big Pharma and the federal government and rewrote the rules of the AIDS playbook. Thanks to him, in 1989 the sky-high price of AZT fell closer to earth.

After forming the Treatment Action Group in 1992, he muscled the National Institutes of Health into revamping its approach to AIDS research. Staley went on to found AIDSMeds.com and later used his own money to campaign against the dangers of crystal meth. Looking for a fourth act, he says he's pondering his next move. --B.R.

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Sean Strub
Sean Strub's advocacy started on day one. In 1981 he began collecting information about a mysterious, burgeoning epidemic among gay men and sharing it with friends. He eventually became one of the cornerstones of ACT UP and, along with Peter Staley, slid the famous condom over Jesse Helms's home. In 1994 he launched Poz magazine, a health-promoting enterprise that now includes Staley's AIDSMeds.com. Today, he's the chief executive of Cable Positive, which advocates for HIV education and awareness through cable TV, and he also works with the Center for HIV Law and Policy, fighting to change the landscape of U.S. laws that criminalize HIV exposure.

Those early days have left his fellow survivors with a "mass post-traumatic stress disorder," he says. But he hopes that "teaching our history will really shape our politics today in constructive ways." --B.R.

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Jewel Thais-Williams
Jewel Thais-Williams couldn't stand idly by during the 1980s as AIDS decimated the young gay black men who patronized the Catch One dance club she owns in Los Angeles.

"Kids who normally came to the club were getting sick, and then I would never see them alive again. And no one was doing anything in the black community to stop it," the 70-year-old recalls.

So she joined with other activists in 1985 to form the Minority AIDS Project and immediately began offering condoms and educational materials at Catch One, among the nation's earliest HIV outreach efforts to African-Americans. Once mobile HIV testing became available, Thais-Williams made sure it was regularly available outside the club as well.

Today, she's still a champion of safer sex, regularly speaking about it with clubgoers -- both gay and straight.

"AIDS is not over," she says. "There's still a lot of work to do; that's why I continue doing it." --B.A.

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Antonio Urbina, MD
After more than a decade in the field, Antonio Urbina has the data to prove that more-experienced HIV physicians have healthier patients. Over three quarters of the HIVers he treats have undetectable viral loads. More important than his sheer longevity in the field, though, is Urbina's holistic approach to care. As medical director of HIV education and training at St. Vincent's Comprehensive HIV Center in New York City, one of the oldest HIV treatment centers, he sees some 4,000 patients, including pregnant women.

Backing him up is a team of nurses and social workers who make sure that virtually no one falls through the cracks. If patients fail to show up to their appointments, for example, Urbina has a program -- with a 95% success rate -- that tracks them down and literally guides them to his office.

"Our motto is 'Never give up,' " says Urbina. "By bringing them back into care, we've really saved their lives."

Not content to take care of just his own patients, Urbina, who was recently appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (as well as being a contributing editor to HIV Plus), has invented a computer "widget" to educate New York state physicians about the proper use of postexposure prophylaxis. He hopes the tool will finally move into standard practice an effective emergency prevention measure that, available since 1996, has been largely ignored in medical education. --B.R.

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Robert Walker
Take any superhero comic book and there's bound to be a backstory in which a hapless young soul is somehow infused with great physical powers -- Peter Parker's fateful radioactive spider bite, for one. The transformation opens the character to fantastic new possibilities, but it may also cause him great anguish and subject him to public stigma. (Spider-Man -- a menace!?)

Robert Walker, a veteran comic book artist who earned his stripes at Marvel, saw the parallels between this common refrain and that of HIV infection. Looking to put his creative talents to a more socially conscious cause, he took it upon himself to create his own comic book, O+MEN, staffed entirely by HIV-positive superheroes who suffer at the hands of their infection but are also sexy, confident, extraordinarily fit ass-kickers.

"I used that old genre and tried to put a new spin on it and put it into a reality-type issue," he says.

Walker says HIV touched his life when he was a teenager and he watched a close family member die. After moving to New York City in 1992, he saw HIV further devastate the gay population. More recently, friends of his have participated in HIV clinical trials or vaccine trials. This gave him the idea for his book: about a nefarious government plot that, claiming to have found a cure for the virus, actually infects unwitting volunteers with a super form of HIV that is not only fast-acting but also leads to great physical powers. (Available at OMENPLUS.com.) The nine main O+MEN characters band together to enact their revenge against their tormentors.

Walker is determined to show every possible race, ethnicity, and sexuality among them. The characters include a fiery Latina lesbian stripper called Hot, an African-American football star on the "down low" named K-oss, and the ghostly former drug user Goth. While the O+MEN were infected in many different ways -- drug abuse, mother to child, gay sex, straight sex, rape -- what they have in common is great fortitude.

"I think when people find out they have HIV and AIDS, they feel a certain helplessness, they don't feel powerful," Walker says. "This is what I wanted to embody into the story of the O+MEN: a sense of power into their lives. Even if you have the disease, you can still move mountains and change the world and do great things." --B.R

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Michael Weinstein
Although Michael Weinstein, cofounder and president of Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, says the two main pillars of the organization he leads are direct care and advocacy, it's perhaps the latter for which the agency's leader is best known.

AHF -- initially formed as an L.A. hospice in 1987 -- is certainly a world leader in providing HIV care, treating nearly 110,000 HIVers in 22 countries. Domestically, the organization operates 17 health care centers, including two new clinics opened this fall, one each in San Francisco and in Washington, D.C. The agency also promotes safer sex through the Love Condoms campaign and in 2008 spearheaded a project that succeeded in testing more than 1.6 million people around the world for HIV. It also operates nonprofit pharmacies that specialize in HIV treatment as well as the Out of the Closet chain of thrift stores.

Despite these impressive achievements for AHF, though, Weinstein more often grabs headlines for his fierce activism and advocacy.

During the past decade, he and the agency have played a key role in pressing drugmakers for triple-drug-therapy price cuts, particularly for low-income HIVers in developing nations. For example, Weinstein says that when AHF began offering antiretroviral treatment in Uganda the average yearly per-person cost was more than $5,000. Today, it's just $82. And while continuing to advocate for affordable medications, Weinstein also is championing improved access to HIV treatment.

"It's my job to fight for access," he says, "for every one of the 33 million HIV-positive people around the world."

But some worry that the ends may not always justify the means through which AHF accomplishes its goals. For example, the organization is currently targeting Merck's pricing of integrase inhibitor Isentress, and this fall literally brought the issue into the homes of all the company's employees and their families with a mass mailer about the matter. AHF also routinely turns to the courts, including suing Pfizer in 2007 over its marketing campaign for Viagra, which AHF alleged encouraged risky sexual behavior. Additionally, the agency is suing to force adult-film companies operating in Los Angeles County to require on-set condom use.

These sorts of bold efforts have earned Weinstein a reputation as something of a rabble-rouser -- in both the good and bad sense of the phrase. But he is decidedly unconcerned about any criticism that he or the organization receives.

"When all is said and done, if the worst thing anyone can say about me is that I offended drug-company executives, I can definitely live with that," Weinstein insists. "I might even consider it a badge of honor. The bottom line is that, up to this point, the virus has been smarter and far more aggressive than we've been. If we're going to put an end to the era of AIDS, we're going to have to be just as aggressive and smart as the virus." --B.A.

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Phill Wilson
Like many other HIVers in the mid 1990s, Phill Wilson saw his health begin to fail and he found himself unable to work, causing him to leave his job as director of policy and planning at AIDS Project Los Angeles and go out on disability. But also like so many of his peers at that time, he was brought back from the brink of death by the arrival of protease inhibitors and triple-combination therapy. By 1999, Wilson was even feeling healthy enough to start thinking about returning to work.

"I looked around to see how things had changed while I was away, and I discovered a glaring lack of progress in mobilizing the black communities hit hard by the disease," notes Wilson, who's also served as AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles and cochair of the L.A. County Commission on HIV. "That was the genesis of the Black AIDS Institute."

The L.A.-based institute, the first national HIV policy center focused exclusively on black people, works to end the AIDS epidemic among blacks through training and capacity building, information dissemination, policy work, and mobilization and advocacy. Under its motto, "Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution," the institute reaches out through its Black Gay Men's Network, "Test 1 Million" campaign, and highly successful African-American HIV University, which trains organizations and individuals to fight HIV in their local communities.

The institute also drew international attention in 2008 with its report "Left Behind," which showed that if black Americans by themselves populated a separate country, that country would have more HIV-positive people than even such hard-hit sub-Saharan African nations as Botswana and Namibia.

"One of the reasons HIV has -- and in many ways continues to have -- a disproportionate impact on black Americans is that AIDS was very quickly branded as a white, gay disease," explains Wilson, 53, who has been HIV-positive for nearly 30 years. "That created a perfect storm. Black communities didn't want to respond to the epidemic because they didn't want to take on another stigmatizing issue, and the messages coming out were that they didn't need to because it didn't affect them. Meanwhile, the house was on fire."

Although Wilson has seen what he calls "miraculous" progress in the black population's response to HIV during the past decade, he insists there's still much more work to be done. "Our goal today is exactly what it was when we formed the institute -- to get black folks to take ownership of the epidemic," he says. "We believe, quite frankly, that the only way to end the AIDS epidemic in the United States is to end it in black communities. It really is as simple as that." --B.A.

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