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Lessons Learned: Silence Still Equals Death


The AIDS crisis offers a blueprint for LGBT people fearing a hostile administration.

This story is part of a series on challenges faced and victories achieved in the fight for LGBT equality. This battle continues, especially with Donald Trump as president, but we won't win unless we learn from the past.

Silence equals death.

This was the mantra for many in the LGBT community during the height of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America. It was printed on banners, buttons, and T-shirts. It was shouted by activists like Larry Kramer. It was practiced in his ACT UP die-ins, which demanded that an unsupportive government pay attention to the epidemic and its victims.

In recent years, many AIDS activists had taken off the pins and adopted boardroom strategies. They found an ally in governors like Andrew Cuomo as well as the Obama administration, which, in addition to passing the Affordable Care Act, committed itself to creating an AIDS-free generation. Many thought they had found another champion in Hillary Clinton, who released a strategy to fight the virus during her presidential campaign.

However, Donald Trump’s victory, his vow to repeal Obamacare, and his surfeit of anti-LGBT cabinet nominations have sent a signal to many leaders in the AIDS community that the old strategy of resistance might once again become the new.

Kramer, a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was ousted from that early AIDS organization for being too vocal about his concerns. In an interview with Masha Gessen for The Advocate, he expressed fears that history was indeed repeating itself — and the need for panicking had returned once again.

“It’s the early days of AIDS all over again,” Kramer said. “I didn’t think that would ever happen.

“It makes you want to cry sometimes,” he added.

As LGBT people prepare for a Trump presidency, there are many lessons learned during the AIDS crisis that could apply today, especially in dealing with an administration that is silent, uncaring, or hostile to their causes. Kelsey Louie, the current CEO of GMHC, outlined several key takeaways to The Advocate.

“When human rights are not protected, people are more vulnerable to disease,” Louie said. “We also learned that silence equals death, and in order to make change, we often need to have our voices heard.”

“We know that HIV and AIDS thrives in the shadows of shame and stigma, and … that spread of shame and stigma and discrimination … has an unfortunately impact on the political commitment and individual action of a community,” he continued. “We also learned that we as a community are not powerless, and when a community works together we are stronger."

Now more than ever, working together will be essential to resisting attacks on LGBT rights and fighting the epidemic in the years ahead. Although society has made many strides toward reducing HIV stigma and developing medications to fight and suppress the virus, gains have not been even across the board.

For example, transgender women, young people (13-24), and men of color who have sex with other men are still disproportionately affected by HIV. In fact, half of black gay and bisexual men test positive in their lifetime. Access to health care is key to lowering these infection rates, but with the ACA and federal funding to health nonprofits like Planned Parenthood on the chopping block, more hurdles may be added, and lives may be lost. Even today, despite having all the tools available to defeat AIDS once and for all, there are still 50,000 new HIV infections every year in the United States, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite these obstacles, there is much an individual can do to help fight HIV and the discrimination that helps it spread. As Louie mentioned, the first is to be vocal. Call out injustice when it happens, regardless of its scale, through media, social media, and everyday interactions. Battle stigma. Champion equality. Call elected officials and be heard. Fight tooth and nail against the demise of Obamacare, because LGBT lives depend on it And don’t lose sight of what’s right.

“One of the things that I said the day after the election to the entire staff is, we need to remember the core values of GMHC,” said Louie, “values of inclusion and compassion and caring for one another. That will make a difference.”

Caring folks can donate to Planned Parenthood, GMHC, and any health organization whose funding may be at risk. They can also volunteer their time with these groups.

Personally, Louie has also found inspiration in the words of Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Barack Obama, who have given hope, encouragement, and empowerment to their supporters for what may be difficult days ahead.

“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle declared on the campaign trail.

“This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what's right is worth it,” Clinton said in her concession speech.

"I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours,” Barack said in his farewell.

And Louie has words of his own for Trump, who has said little about AIDS and has yet to release a plan to address it during his presidency.

"There are still 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year,” Louie said. “We hope the new administration will work with us and commit the attention and resources required to end the epidemic once and for all."

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Daniel Reynolds