I lived in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in the 1980s when word began to spread about a “gay cancer,” and many of the men around me began to fall ill. It was horrifying and heartbreaking.
We didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know what to do. Our friends and family were suffering.
President Reagan ignored requests for funding and attention to the growing epidemic. Even after we knew what was happening, years passed before he even mentioned HIV. During this time, women tended to the bedsides of our sick brothers, and many of us marched in the streets demanding action.
We’ve come so far since those days. We know now how HIV is prevented; we have life-saving treatments; and we have significantly raised awareness. Unfortunately stigma and misinformation remain roadblocks to achieving equality and an end to HIV. Many states still have outdated laws, steeped in prejudice, that treat people living with HIV differently than others, and in some cases even target them for arrest.
President Trump’s recent firing of the entire Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS was deeply irresponsible. His subsequent comments about immigrants living with HIV, his vast roster of anti-LGBTQ appointees and advisors, and his efforts to deny access to quality health care for millions of Americans comprise an assault on decades of progress.
We must resist attempts to slow us down. It is imperative that the LGBTQ community reprioritize HIV as a focus of our advocacy and organizing. There is so much more work to do to ensure that transgender people, people of color, and poor people are able to receive up-to-date information and treatment for HIV, and are not arrested or prosecuted based on their status.
This year Equality Ohio, Fairness Campaign in Kentucky, Forum for Equality in Louisiana and Louisiana Transgender Advocates will build coalitions, train leaders, and address vital policy needs to fight HIV-related stigma and remove barriers to prevention and treatment. The momentum gained in these three states will drive this crucial work forward nationally.
We recognize that HIV is still an LGBTQ issue. In fact, if current rates of infection continue, half of all African-American gay and bisexual men will have HIV in their lifetime. We cannot effectively address this ongoing health crisis without addressing systemic racism and ending the laws and policies that unfairly target, punish, and imprison people for no other reason than their HIV status. We’ve overturned laws making LGBTQ identity illegal and now it’s time to do the same with laws that criminalize people for having HIV.
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 30 years since I experienced those early days of HIV in the Castro. Back then, it was hard to imagine the future, much less an end to the epidemic. After all, we didn’t know what was causing it, much less how to prevent or treat it. Those times felt hopeless, unlike today.
Today we have hope because we know how to prevent and treat HIV. With PrEP, we can stop neary 100 percent of all cases in people who are HIV negative, and through treatment we can now get the virus to undetectable -- and therefore untransmittable -- levels in those who are HIV-positive. In other words, we have the tools to end HIV; and what we need now more than ever is the will. Standing strong with HIV and AIDS service organizations, community members, and people living with HIV, Equality Federation is proud to be rededicating and affirming our commitment to ending the epidemic. We’ll end HIV by increasing access to prevention and treatment, overcoming laws based in stigma, fear and misinformation, and supporting leadership in those communities most impacted, particularly among men of color in the South. It’s taken decades, but the end of HIV is finally in our grasp.
REBECCA ISAACS is the executive director of the Equality Federation, which works as a strategic partner to state-based organizations advocating for LGBTQ people.