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More than a white
male disease

More than a white
male disease


In 2006 when the world marked the 25th anniversary of AIDS, it also saw the rise of a new generation of AIDS heroes who are taking the fight to their communities.

Yesid Barreto might not seem like a typical AIDS activist. "I don't have anybody close to me who is positive, and I'm not," the out New Yorker says. "I don't have a family member who died from it either. But I've found a passion in educating other people [about AIDS], starting in high school."

A peer educator at age 13, Barreto found his calling. At the just-legal age of 21 he formed a youth-run nonprofit that focuses on HIV education in New York City high schools. And now at 27 he has been hired by the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project and is blazing another trail: a series of free Spanish-language workshops about treating HIV and hepatitis C.

In 2006 the world marked a somber anniversary--25 years since the first AIDS diagnosis. But 2006 also brought heartening signs of progress in stemming the epidemic: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $500 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; a new once-a-day AIDS pill was approved; and thanks to Democratic victories in the midterm election, Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat and staunch AIDS advocate, will soon be House speaker.

But some of the most notable changes came from the efforts of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender AIDS heroes--people like Barreto who are taking the fight to minority neighborhoods and college campuses. They're making sure the public face of AIDS isn't strictly white and male so that the hope-inspiring political and medical advancements benefit everyone in coming years.

Jonathan Perry, 30, was kicked out of Southeastern University, an Assemblies of God institution in Lakeland, Fla., because he is gay. Then in 2001 he tested positive for HIV as a student at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black liberal arts college in Charlotte, N.C. Since graduating in 2005, Perry, who notes that half of all new cases of HIV are among African-Americans, has been speaking at other black colleges as well as Ivy League schools about HIV and sex.

"In the beginning I had no intention of ever divulging my status publicly," says Perry, who first spoke to classmates at the behest of a counselor. "I could have kept my mouth shut, but I was chosen in a lot of regards to be the mouthpiece for black college students."'

Having sparked an HIV dialogue, Perry, who lives in Atlanta, wants to take on other issues he sees as key to African-Americans. He hopes to start a nonprofit organization to address not just HIV and AIDS but also racism, education, self-esteem, and religious oppression. "It's based on the premise that black people are who black people have been waiting for," says Perry, who calls his organization Our Best Hope. "It's seeing an opportunity for change, and rather than waiting for somebody else to do it, we become the catalyst ourselves."

Barreto's workshops are similarly inclined, targeting both health care providers and the roughly 84,000 Latinos living with HIV/AIDS in the United States.

Barreto, who bypassed college, oversees a network of doctors who speak at workshops about drug options, doctor-patient communication, and healthful habits. And don't expect dull doctors at the podium. "If you're boring, I don't want you," Barreto says. "I need my doctors to be engaging."

Cultivating audiences for Spanish-language workshops is tougher than for the English-language workshops he also manages, Barreto has learned. Building trust takes time in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles, places with sizable undocumented immigrant populations. "We like to show the locals who we are," says Barreto, who visits the cities several times before giving presentations so that people can meet him. "We are not immigration, so don't worry about coming together."

Isadore Boni, 39, faces a different challenge in reaching his community: At his Apache reservation in San Carlos, Ariz., many consider death a taboo topic. Boni also remained silent after he learned in 2002 that he'd contracted HIV and hepatitis C. He stayed away from San Carlos.

Then, after more than two years bouncing between shelters and halfway houses and seeing his T-cell count drop to the point that he was diagnosed with AIDS, he broke his silence on World AIDS Day in 2004. Now he's a vocal, visible advocate for Native Americans living with HIV/AIDS--talking to tribal councils, elders, classes, and on panels, highlighting service shortfalls.

"There is that taboo-ism that needs to be broken," Boni says, his voice breaking with emotion. "That's why I'm speaking out more, so Native people will feel less afraid of getting a test, those who are living with AIDS might feel a little less afraid, and those who aren't infected might reach out more to people with AIDS."

Cecilia Chung, 41, a transgender Chinese-American woman, is also knocking down barriers, improving HIV services for transgender people. Her own diagnosis showed her the scarcity of services for women of color and transgender women. "There were few services a transgender woman would feel comfortable accessing," she recalls.

Working as deputy director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, Chung advocates for better health care access. She also serves on the board of directors of the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, which offers HIV/AIDS education and support services.

Unlike in other minority groups, Chung says, there is a disturbing lack of information about transgender people and HIV. "To know how to address HIV prevention as well as HIV medical services, we need to know where these communities are," she says. "To have less than five years of data on transgender communities for a disease that has been around for 25 years is disturbing. Hopefully, in the next 10 years we'll see more health care agencies coming on board and adopting policies to better serve transgender clients."

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