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David Furnish Fights the Stigma of HIV/AIDS

David Furnish Fights the Stigma of HIV/AIDS


As chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, David Furnish is doing all he can to see that his son one day lives in an AIDS-free world. Earlier this week the activist and filmmaker delivered a keynote speech at the United States Conference on AIDS in Chicago, discussing the Greater Than AIDS initiative, of which the Elton John AIDS Foundation is a founding partner. Amid the weeklong conference, Furnish found time to speak with The Advocate about the importance of the campaign, what motivated him to fight this disease, and what he'd like to see in the future.

The Advocate: What led The Elton John AIDS Foundation to cofound Greater Than AIDS?
David Furnish: Just the opportunity to partner with many wonderful people, like the Kaiser Foundation, Walgreens, Johnson Publishing, and Ebony magazine. We saw it as an opportunity to dive straight in and address the biggest issues that we see affecting people: understanding and knowing about their HIV status, and the stigma associated with that. Walgreens now has in 450 of their pharmacies within African-American and gay communities across America the opportunity to go in and get on-the-spot HIV testing with counseling and medication counseling. We're finding, despite the fact that we've been living with this disease for 30 years, that the greatest challenge we're facing is stigma. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome -- and that's why we went with the Greater Than AIDS awareness campaign -- is getting people to overcome their fear and their inhibitions so they can go into safe, easy environments and learn their HIV status as soon -- and as privately -- as possible so they can act accordingly.

How important are events like the USCA? What do you hope comes out of it?
It's very important because I think there is a younger generation of people and a lot of minority communities that basically hit the [information] snooze button on the alarm clock -- the alarm clock that I heard very strongly when I was a gay man coming to terms with my sexuality and dealing with HIV in the '80s. Those alarm bells were ringing very, very loudly. But it's fallen off the agenda. People aren't writing about AIDS as much anymore. I get very frustrated every time I pick up a newspaper on World AIDS Day and find the story buried on page 26, if it's covered at all. In most major cities, one in five gay men are infected, but 50% of them don't know it. The message clearly isn't getting out there.

What would you like to say to the younger generation?
I would say, if you're in a situation to prevent yourself from contracting any disease, you should do so. [Which means] wearing a condom if you're in a nonexclusive relationship or in an exclusive relationship where you don't know the status of your partner. Prevention is still very important. But if you don't know your status, the important thing is to get tested. Because a lot of young gay men think, Oh, I'm not vulnerable -- it's the older generation of gay men that were affected by this disease. They're wrong. That's where we're seeing the growth. So they do need to take precautions.

What brought you personally to the fight against HIV and AIDS?
I lost many, many friends in the '80s. And I watched them die very solitary, stigmatized deaths. The first friend I knew who died from HIV, his family never had a chance to come and say goodbye to him because he was too embarrassed to tell them he was battling HIV and AIDS. I think that's very, very sad, and I found his loss profoundly moving. And I lost many friends after that. This is a disease that has killed 30 million people, and 37 million people on our planet are living with this virus. It's a pandemic. Having been personally affected by it, I feel it's important to get involved as much as possible.

What are some of the main hurdles you'd like to see overcome?
I would like to see homophobia addressed a whole lot more on a national level. And on a local level I think the government can continue to do more in terms of a policy direction. I think this ridiculous ongoing debate about gay marriage is outdated and we just need to deal with it once and for all. And I think we need on a national level to ensure we have equality for all gays, lesbians, and transgender people across America, and I'd like to see, hand in hand with that, people feeling much less stigmatized about knowing their HIV status and living positively with AIDS. I'd really like to see all of those things swept away so that HIV is something people talk about like many other medical conditions we face in life.

What about scientifically?

Listen, I'd love to see a cure. I'd love to see a vaccine. There's lots of promising research out there, but it still hasn't happened yet. But with the tools we already have, the weapons we have at our disposal, we've come a long way. Treatment is almost coming down to the point where it equals prevention. When you talk about a 96% reduction in viral load and a 96% reduction in passing the virus on to another person, that's a huge step. I hope we keep making greater steps in that direction.

You're a new dad. How did becoming a father motivate the work you do?
I said in my speech this morning I would like to see my son in his lifetime live in a world without AIDS. And whether we discover a vaccine or a cure, if we can address stigma and homophobia, we can stop the disease from being spread to other people. And since we know with the programs we're doing around the world that we can prevent mother-to-child transmission in HIV-positive mothers, we can literally visualize an AIDS-free next generation -- and my son is going to be a part of that. That's a dream that I really hope will become a reality. And I believe it can become a reality.

Learn more about Greater Than AIDS here.
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