I recently attended a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. During the event I encountered so many inspiring people who spoke passionately about their commitment to ending HIV. It was a beautiful night from beginning to end — but of all the speeches I heard, there was one that truly resonated with me.
An advocate receiving an award spoke about HIV so boldly. She focused heavily on where we started over 40 years ago and reminded the audience that it was in America where HIV first got the world’s attention. It was in America where the world watched our citizens be silenced and shamed. It was in America where the world watched how oppression impacts public health. It was in America where the world watched a generation of people die and the government do nothing and say nothing. It was in America that stigma was born. The most powerful and wealthy nation in the world, yet here we are.
It was an electrifying speech that got a standing ovation.
It also got me thinking about the origins of HIV. I reflected on some of the facts that many people don’t talk about. The fact that we now know the first case of HIV goes all the way back to 1959 in Congo: The fact that it is estimated that people were dying from AIDS-related complications in Africa for at least a decade before it started getting mainstream attention. The fact that America has always sat at the epicenter of the epidemic, even though there are countries with far greater challenges.
As someone who is a part of and advocates for communities most vulnerable to HIV, I will admit that often I exist in a bubble. I spend most of my time working to impact systems of care that will improve health outcomes, and I do that through a very U.S.-focused approach. I live in the United States, therefore I am extremely focused on the U.S. epidemic. However, when we talk about HIV and how we do the work, it is important to not just look at America, but to take in consideration the immense challenges other countries face and have been facing for decades. That speech magnified that for me, and it’s why World AIDS Day is so important. It creates an opportunity for everyone to pause, get out of their bubble, and acknowledge the impact that HIV has around the globe.
We acknowledge that HIV is still a major health crisis in many parts of the world and in many communities. We acknowledge that there are health inequities across the world that allow this pandemic to continue. And most importantly, we acknowledge the people. All the people who have passed, and all the people who are living.
This month for World AIDS Day, we are celebrating amazing people living with HIV. I ask all of us to celebrate the amazing people all over the world living with HIV. Celebrate the people you know, and the people you don’t. Celebrate the people in America and the people across the globe. Think about what makes them truly amazing. They are amazing not just because they are living well with HIV. They are amazing because they are living life on their own terms. They are amazing because they stare stigma in the face every day and overcome it. They are amazing because they inspire others. They are amazing for existing.
This year, I commit to getting out of my bubble and looking at HIV beyond the United States of America. If you want to as well, visit ElizabethTaylorAIDSFoundation.org to see how you can help their HIV work in Africa. I want everyone on Earth living with HIV to know that they have my support and my admiration. Be happy and be well.
Ashley Innes is a writer and HIV advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Ash_Innes.