My coming out days were lived out in Chicago, Illinois (1965-1982). I also came out prior to HIV/AIDS being part of our everyday lives.
During my time in Chicago, the gay community was party central but also a close-knit community. Over the years I developed close friendships with a group of people that at its peak numbered fifteen.
We all hung out together, spent time at the clubs together and I guess by today’s standards could have had a reality TV show made about us.
We compared notes on our boyfriends, went to parties, gossiped about straight people, got jobs, participated in the community and marched for our rights. We were always there for one another no matter what the circumstance.
I didn’t think about it at the time but now I know we had something special-we had a group of people who had become VERY close friends and became a support system to one another that I don’t suppose will ever be repeated.
Starting in 1981 through 1982 the group started to drift apart. Some got jobs that took them out of Chicago and into other parts of the state, some got involved in long term relationships and moved to the suburbs, others found themselves struggling to find the love of their life or way through life as a gay man and; lacking direction or support turned to heavy amounts of alcohol and drugs.
In June of 1982, needing a fresh start I moved to Cincinnati where, within a month of arriving I would meet the man I am still with today. The choice to move probably saved my life.
For you see, the crushing and deadly wave that we would come to know as AIDS arrived in Chicago in the latter part of 1982. By the time my partner and I had been together for twelve years, my best friend and I were the only ones still alive from that group of fifteen. None of them had reached the age of forty.
Today, as I write this at the age of fifty-six and in the thirtieth year of marriage (Yes, despite what the world says I am married), I am the only one left who is alive and HIV negative. My best friend died at the age of forty-seven after getting the disease because of cheating and an abusive boyfriend.
I was no angel in those days and I guess every year at this time when I think of my friends who died much too soon I get a case of survivor’s guilt.
I have also been ordained since 1986, so I have twenty-five plus years of pastoral ministry. In those years I have probably done funerals for more people under the age of fifty than most pastors do in an entire career.
What is really heart breaking is that HIV/AIDS is not done yet, despite media spin “that this is now a manageable disease”. That is a lie and severe distortion of the truth. AIDS still kills at an alarming rate and the rate of infection is on the rise.
According to UNAIDS (2010) ‘UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic’ “Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died from AIDS-related causes.”
Every month I still counsel people who are newly infected. Every month I am there with someone who has died or in support of a partner, family and friends who have lost someone. Our congregation has a number of people who have tested positive and are at various stages of health challenges.
A friend in Atlanta is HIV positive and while he is healthy and living a productive life…the meds that he has to take are anything but pleasant. The side effects require he not get too much sun, eat the correct foods and not get too stressed, as the reaction is more then a pain in the ass, it is debilitating.
So, I guess I am writing this today to remind folks that the AIDS pandemic is not over. Not by a long shot. We cannot afford to get comfortable. We cannot afford to not continue to educate, stress prevention, and harm reduction (translation, safe sex and needle exchanging).
We must remember God’s people are dying…
I am asking the readers of this blog to get involved in harm reduction, to recognize this pandemic knows no boundaries.
Mark Harrington of Treatment Action Group has offered these Sixteen Radical Steps to End the AIDS Epidemic.
I offer some of the more important steps to the readers as a point of education, meditation and action:
We must strive to continue to lower the numbers newly infected. There are several ways we could dramatically reduce infections rapidly if we are willing to take some radical steps around the world.
1) Universal treatment for women equals universal prevention for infants
We must ensure that every pregnant HIV-positive woman has access to full antiretroviral therapy (ART) from the time her pregnancy is known to when she completes breastfeeding, and then for life if indicated by her CD4 and health status. And we must ensure that every HIV infected baby is diagnosed at birth and treated for life.
2) End gender-based violence and strengthen the legal and health rights of women and sexual minorities
We must demand and achieve equal status for women, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people and end the violence against them everywhere.
3) End the war against sex workers
We must insist on decoupling efforts to stop human trafficking from the current stigmatization and exclusion of sex workers from their full human, health, and economic rights to live and work in dignity, legally and safely.
4) End the war against drug users
We must end the punitive, expensive, and wasteful global war on drug users. We must work in countries around the world to decriminalize possession of drugs; provide universal access to drug substitution therapy, clean syringe exchange, and safe injecting rooms and equipment; and provide services for people reentering society after being unjustly incarcerated for nonviolent drug use.
5) End health disparities everywhere
HIV rates among black Americans are eight times higher than those of white Americans; 600,000 black Americans are living with HIV and 30,000 new infections occur among them each year. The epidemic among black Americans is the same size as that in Côte d’Ivoire, and bigger than that of seven priority PEPFAR countries put together.
The U.S. government and its people are obliged to address this epidemic with the same urgency with which they are now addressing the global pandemic.
The United States must develop and implement a national AIDS strategy with specific targets, timelines, and the goal of reversing the epidemic, with special attention and resources targeted toward black Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, women, and men who have sex with men.
6) Scale up HIV testing and improve HIV epidemiology
We must massively scale up HIV testing globally. New York City has belatedly introduced a policy to test — voluntarily and with opt-out — any resident of the Bronx who presents to the health system. If HIV testing can be massively scaled up in Lesotho, it certainly can and should be massively scaled up in New York City, still the epicenter of the U.S. epidemic.
We must have access to much better, more accurate, and timelier information about where the epidemic is and where it is moving to. Recent revisions downward by UNAIDS on the global pandemic and upward by the CDC on the U.S. epidemic have left the impression that we are still far from having a clear enough picture of the size, scope, distribution, and movement of the epidemic in its 28th year.
7) Prevent, diagnose, treat, and cure TB
Everyone has a responsibility to do a much better job of reducing the impact of TB among people with HIV. HIV clinics around the world must implement infection control procedures, intensified TB case finding, and earlier TB diagnosis and treatment so that no one contracts TB while accessing HIV care.
Routine screening for TB at every clinic visit should also allow healthy HIV-positive persons in pre-ART care to receive cotrimoxazole and isoniazid preventive therapies, which despite overwhelming evidence of efficacy are not routinely used in most sites due to overblown fears about resistance, toxicity, and adherence.
8) Diagnose, prevent, and treat viral hepatitis and common opportunistic infections
We should strive to obtain serology and, when possible, treatment for hepatitis B and hepatitis C infections among HIV coinfected persons. Because of the overlapping activity of certain ARV drugs, we are already treating many people who are coinfected with HBV and HIV without knowing their HBV status. As HBV and HCV treatments mature and oral combination therapy becomes possible, we must be ready to scale up hepatitis treatment globally.
Better opportunistic infection prophylaxis and treatment are also needed. Key drugs must be added to the essential medicines formulary and their prices brought down: amphotericin-B for cryptococcosis, azithromycin for MAC and a host of other infections, rifabutin for tuberculosis, and valganciclovir for CMV retinitis.
9) Develop better first-, second-, and third-line antiretroviral (ARV) regimens
We still need cheaper, safer, and more durable first- and second-line ART regimens to guarantee the longest possible duration of viral suppression free of side effects. Though the ART treatment space is maturing, there is still room for better combinations with greater durability, less toxicity, higher barriers to resistance, and cheaper manufacturing costs.
10) Intensify investment in biomedical research, including AIDS research
The last five years have seen stagnation in U.S. investment in research at the National Institutes of Health. The AIDS research budget, nominally $2.9 billion, has lost about 20% of its purchasing power due to inflation during this time. We must demand that the next U.S. president and Congress increase support for all NIH research — including AIDS research — by 15% in each of the next five years.
Other rich countries in the European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development must double or triple the amount they invest in biomedical research, including research for AIDS, TB, viral hepatitis, and other diseases. Emerging and developing countries need to increase investment in biomedical research five- to tenfold to help address persistent gaps in health research.
11) Show solidarity with activists, health workers, policy makers, and scientists working on global health issues
We cannot afford a divisive debate that pits advocates for different diseases against each other.
12) We need greater unity
We must become more united if we are to become an even more powerful force for global public health, human rights, and social justice, with our goal of universal access evolving into comprehensive and universal primary care for all. To those who say it cannot be done we must reply, “¡Si se puede! Yes, we can!”
So today I remember, honor and place in memorial all those who have died.
Today, I pray and proclaim the hope and healing for all those who live and are affected by this virus. For you, I will not be silent. I will speak out persistently, loudly and with a clear voice for justice.
Today, I once again say to my friends who have been received in the loving arms of God:
Timothy, Gerald, Brandon, Billy the nerd, William, Paddy, Tyrone, Tom, Chuck, Thomas, Sammy, Joey, Philip and John…I love you. You did not die in vain and I will never forget you.