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We're Fighting for So Much Right Now — Don't Forget About HIV

AIDS United Op-Ed

The first Pride march was organized one year after the Stonewall riots to broaden the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer struggle and push for our fundamental rights. In the 48 years following, we’ve made so much progress — from the right to marry to the right to serve openly in the military. We have so much to celebrate. However, despite our progress and the continuing barriers we face to achieve full freedom, justice, equality and equity, we cannot deny that in some ways our movement is forgetting about HIV.

In 1981, when the first 270 cases of what we now call HIV and AIDS were reported among gay men, researchers coined the term “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID, which had the effect of downplaying or minimizing the risk to many other people. The media even used the term “gay cancer” to describe the disease. This stigmatizing language reinforced the idea that HIV only affected gay and bisexual men — a myth perpetuated to this day.

This is problematic because we know that HIV doesn’t discriminate. HIV affects people from every background and all walks of life. However, HIV does continue to disproportionately affect our community, especially among black and Latinx men who have sex with men, and transgender women. Incredible scientific progress makes it possible to live well and long with HIV. In fact, when a person living with HIV is sustained in care and treatment and is virally suppressed, they have virtually no risk of transmitting the virus to others. Science has created new prevention options like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the use of a medication that HIV-negative people can take to lower their risk of contracting HIV. Despite all these advances the epidemic continues to grow among our community.

Today, our community faces real uncertainty. Our hard-fought gains since Stonewall are all under siege. Our anxiety is felt everywhere across America and, at times, it feels overwhelming. This week all eyes are on the Senate as it considers a bill that will take insurance away from 22 million Americans and will only further widen disparities faced by LGBTQ people.

The one place where we and thousands of us find solace is in the power and resiliency of our community. We feel this power in our marches and demonstrations, and we sense it in the urgent conversations among friends about “what’s next.” It’s clear that in this political environment we must do everything we can to propel our beloved LGBTQ community forward — and if we work together, we cannot be stopped.

If we work together we can also turn the tide of the HIV epidemic and end its disproportionate affects on our community.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that over six years, HIV annual incidence dropped by 18 percent nationwide. This is incredible news. The bad news is that gay and bisexual men did not experience a comparable decline in annual HIV infections. According to this latest CDC report, 70 perceent of the 37,600 new HIV infections in the United States in 2014 occurred among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. This data makes absolutely clear that we must do more to promote HIV prevention and treatment in our community. If we don’t do this, especially in this political environment, we dare not count on any one else.

Sadly, HIV continues to be a disease driven by stigma and shame. Stigma is exacerbated by the criminalization of HIV and of common routes of transmission, including syringe use and sex work. The same communities that are disproportionately likely to be living with HIV — black and brown men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs, and women engaged in sex work — are also more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for all crimes, including those that specifically target people living with HIV. In this month of Pride, by being out and speaking out we challenge the LGBTQ community to spend a moment between the marches, parades, and protests to reflect on the milestones and civil rights our movement has yet to achieve and the HIV disparities we have yet to overcome.

Our LGBTQ community has so much to do in the coming years. We have to speak truth to power; we have to protect and advance the legal rights that so many others enjoy; and we have to help our people be healthy and safe. As you celebrate Pride, take the opportunity — even just a moment — to talk about HIV, to get tested for HIV, and to educate yourself about HIV. Our rights are at stake, and so is our health.

Learn more at www.cdc.gov/starttalking.

REA CAREY is the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. JESSE MILAN JR. is the president and CEO of AIDS United.

Tags: Commentary, HIV

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