For the last several years, Bruce Richman has united activists and organizers from around the globe to end both the HIV epidemic and the stigma that many people living with HIV face.
Richman is the founding executive director of the Prevention Access Campaign (PAC), a growing network of health experts, professionals, teachers, siblings, spouses, parents, and friends encouraging the world to change their perspectives on what a positive diagnosis means.
Using hard-hitting research and tenacious lobbying, the U=U campaign has become a global consensus, recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous other agencies, to remind the world that if you are living with HIV, on treatment, and undetectable (meaning, your viral load is suppressed), it is impossible to transmit the virus to others.
Despite the immense impact U=U has already had on the esteem, relationships, and overall wellness of those living with HIV (and the people who love them), the rest of the country’s general perception of HIV is still outdated. This is what drives Richman’s pursuit to change hearts and minds.
"I’ve been living with HIV since 2003," he says. "And I realized in 2012 from my doctor that because I was undetectable, I couldn’t transmit HIV. That was mind-blowing to me because I thought I would be infectious, and I hate that word, but that’s the way I felt. I thought I’d be infectious for the rest of my life and so many of us who live with HIV never imagined a time when we could love, we could have sex, [or] we could conceive children without that fear of transmitting HIV to our partner."
"It changed everything for me," he adds of the realization. "But then I started to realize that nobody knew about this. Only privileged people like myself who are connected to the medical establishment, heads of research associations, privileged people with HIV knew about this but it wasn’t getting to the public."
Pictured: Richman at the International AIDS Society conference in Paris, 2017
In 2015, Richman formed PAC to help get the U=U campaign off the ground. Today, it includes many notables such as Housing Works founder and CEO Charles King, National Black Justice Coalition’s Venton C. Jones Jr., former chief medical officer of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Dr. Robert Grant, and HIV activists JD Davids, Carrie Foote, Peter Staley, Damon Jacobs, Shannon Weber, Jim Pickett, Noel Gordon, and Kamaria Laffrey.
Richman also touched on the mainstream media's incessant comparisons between COVID-19 and HIV.
"In terms of what people living with HIV suffered and the people who are cared about us suffered in the early days of epidemic, there are just no parallels whatsoever," he says. "This was a disease that was not even acknowledged by the U.S. government for years because this was a disease that was associated with marginalized communities — gay people, Black people, people who inject drugs. It was not acknowledged that we were dying without any kind of support."
He continues, "There is this parallel in that it really was the community that pushed ourselves during the early days of the HIV epidemic. The community organized, the community got the drugs to the FDA, got the government to pay attention. Now, it’s going to be the community to really save ourselves."
"Another parallel," he adds, "is so many of us living with HIV have been worried and afraid, and had to take responsibility of — and felt the stigma — of the contagion, of being contagious to other people. We had to protect our partners from the disease we had for a long period of time. The roots of transition are very different between COVID-19 and HIV, but I think now people are realizing, God, this is what it’s like. "
"I do think people are going to have more empathy for people living with HIV," he explains. "Now that everyone has had that experience of possibly being contagious and possibly killing the people that we love, they'll understand a little more of what we’ve gone through and how miraculous it is now to know that if we had treatment, if we’re lucky enough to have successful treatment, we can’t pass on HIV. We don’t need to be afraid any more of passing HIV."
One thing we can learn from, Richman explains, is the success of our past.
"I think the activists in the '80s were some of the best, if not the best, activists we’ve ever seen," he says. "Holding government accountable. There’s a lot of dishonesty coming from our government, from the hideous president. I think Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and Ambassador [Deborah] Birx — I’ve worked with both of them and respect them so much — are having to tow that fine line between the truth and staying in their positions; supporting the president just enough to be able to be there to serve us."
"I think Fauci is doing a tremendous job and I think Ambassdar Birx is doing the best she can in an incredibly difficult situation," he goes on. "But we still need to hold them accountable for the truth. We still need the media to hold them accountable. We still need our activists to hold them accountable, and push them to get the truth about the situation from our government so we know how to respond the best way we can. [HIV activist groups] ACT UP and Treatment Action Group (TAG) were so successful at doing that. I also think U=U was successful to get the truth out in its own way."
Watch the rest of our interview above.