Op-ed: AIDS Walk Steps Still Lead the Way
Medication and condoms alone will never end AIDS. These tools, as important as they are, must be married with vital social change. To truly end AIDS, we must overcome poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
It is GMHC’s and my strong belief that these social ills fuel the epidemic. They must be confronted by the powerful community that participates in, and contributes to, AIDS Walk New York each year.
If we are to achieve a generation free of AIDS, then we need a government that is truly laying the groundwork to eliminate discrimination against all disenfranchised people. To end AIDS, we must fight institutionalized discrimination.
For example, we need a government that stops pounding LGBT youth with messages that diminish their worth and jeopardize their futures. We must also push back against religious doctrine that shames rather than uplifts. As they demonstrate each year, AIDS Walk New York participants are deeply committed to, and are powerfully advancing, this vision of equality.
The Obama administration does seem to be working to lay the foundation for such a future, with the first-ever National AIDS Strategy and with the president’s historic statement declaring his support for marriage equality.
At the legislative level, important work is being done. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has sponsored a widely supported bill to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. Congresswoman Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., is advancing the Social Security Equality Act of 2012 to end the discrimination against LGBT Americans that is embedded in our Social Security system. These are just two of the many legislative paths that will help fight AIDS while serving the larger cause of full LGBT equality under the law.
To end AIDS, we must also lift up LGBT youth and combat homophobia. Our young people far too often endure bullying from their peers, as well as messages of disapproval from their communities, from close-minded ideologues, and sometimes, tragically, from their own families. This can result in severe and even fatal depression; it can also lead them to make choices that put them at risk for HIV. AIDS Walk New York supports programs at GMHC like Club 1319 that provide guidance to questioning, bisexual, and gay teens, helping them make positive, informed decisions about their health.
To end AIDS, we must fight racism and sexism. People of color continue to disproportionately face disparities in the quality and availability of affordable healthcare. That means less HIV information, less testing, less treatment, and a greater opportunity for the virus to spread.
Women, particularly those facing economic duress, too often lack the power to negotiate safer sex with their male partners. The numbers illustrate this ongoing tragedy. In New York City, women now make up a much larger proportion – 32% – of all HIV diagnoses than they did at the start of the epidemic.
We must ensure that all HIV-positive people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, have access to appropriate medical care, and are presented with honest, accurate, and culturally sensitive HIV prevention information. AIDS Walk New York funds programs at GMHC that do exactly that.
To end AIDS, we must fight poverty. People at the lowest income levels are some of those at greatest risk of HIV infection, and the least equipped to deal with the consequences of contracting the disease. AIDS Walk New York helps GMHC provide food, linkages to safe housing, access to medical care, and much more to people who are struggling not only with HIV and AIDS, but also poverty.
With every new piece of legislation that affords equal protection for LGBT people; with every parent who chooses to fully love and support their gay teenage son or daughter; and with every dollar raised at AIDS Walk New York, we move closer to an AIDS-free generation. As the foundations of discrimination crack under their own weight or are toppled by the movers and shakers like those who will walk with us this Sunday, so falls the fear and ignorance that perpetuate hatred of those who are different, and that in turn propel the spread of HIV.
The challenge is great, and must be met with the same energy, compassion, and vision that led us through the dark early years of the AIDS epidemic. Those who join AIDS Walk New York become part of the fabric of social change that will lead to the end of HIV/AIDS.
CRAIG R. MILLER is the founder of the AIDS Walks and a longtime producer of AIDS Walk New York. He is also president of AIDS Community Action Foundation. To register for, or contribute to, AIDS Walk New York, please call (212) 807-9255 (WALK) or visit aidswalk.net.