December 1, 2007
The Many Faces of AIDS: A Message to My Brothers and Sisters in the Gay Community
Speech delivered by Charles King
World AIDS Day, San Francisco, California
Thank you for inviting me to join you today in commemorating World AIDS Day at the National AIDS Memorial here in this beautiful park.
You know, at least from superficial reports, today ought to be a day of celebration. Just two weeks ago, UNAIDS announced a recalculation of the global AIDS pandemic, reducing the number of people living with AIDS world-wide from 39.5 million to 33.2 million persons, and the number of annual deaths from 3 million persons to only 2.5 million.
Not only that, but there is also considerable news on the treatment front. The latest generation of treatments is so effective that I heard Martin Delaney of Project Inform just last month declare that even people who months ago had what were considered salvage options, assuming they have access to treatment of care and are reasonably adherent, can now expect to die of maladies related to old age, and not conditions associated with the virus.
Sadly, it takes only a slightly more penetrating look to see why this is emphatically not a day for celebration! The UNAIDS announcement was largely due to statistical adjustments, and with a few exceptions, had little to nothing to do we any meaningful success in our efforts to end the disease. And even while UNAIDS was lowering its figures, the CDC is reportedly struggling with how to make the politically sensitive announcement that it has been under-forecasting the rate of HIV infection in the United States for the last several years by nearly 50%. At 2.5 million annual deaths, AIDS is still the world’s leading killer, and new infections around the globe still continue to soar among young women, girls, injection drug users, and, above all, young men who have sex with other men.
As for Martin Delany’s prognostications, his qualifier is critical. For the truth is that less than 50% of the people living with HIV here in the United States have access to primary care, much less the latest greatest drugs couple with sophisticated lab tests that are read by HIV-specialty care providers. And around the globe, less than one third of people who are in need, as defined by an appallingly low t-cell count of less than 200, have access to any treatment, much less access to the latest and greatest.
The sad and damning truth, my friends, is that while many of us merrily pop our pills every morning and go on with our lives as if the crisis had ended, we are still loosing that battle against the AIDS epidemic in the United States and the pandemic around the globe.
Now this is the point in my speech where I usually rail against the powers that be. I point out that ending this pandemic is already possible even without a vaccine or a cure, that it’s not rocket science, just common sense, and then go into my rant about how it is not a lack of resources, but a lack of political will. All of the above is, in fact, quite true. But it’s just not for today’s speech.
Instead, standing here as I am in San Francisco, pulsing with the heartbeat of Gay America, I’m moved to ask why so much of the gay community, my community, has given up on the fight against AIDS. I really don’t mean to give offense. And while I have been accused at times of being provocative, it’s a sincere question: Why has so much of the gay community walked away from the battle against AIDS?
Some of you here today are perhaps too young to remember the way it was in the 80’s. First there was the quiet dread, which grew to a sense of terror as friend after friend began to get sick, quickly loose weight, and then die. There was that awful sense of helplessness, confusion and then rage as we died and the world did nothing. And then we began to organize and to fight. I remember attending my first meeting of ACT-UP New York in the summer of 1987. Standing in the back of a packed room at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, I found myself heaving dry sobs, hoping no one could see my visceral reaction.
At last there was something I could do. I could fight back. And even if we didn’t win, I wouldn’t be going down alone. At the time, I was still HIV negative. But, like many others in my circumstance, AIDS had already taken over my life, dragging me out of the closet and, in doing so, effectively destroying my career as a young Baptist minister. So it didn’t matter that the virus had not yet tainted my blood. As a gay man, I was living with AIDS, and I was willing to do what ever it took to bring the plague to an end.
The next three years were a blur of adrenaline: Fighting back at the Republican Convention in New Orleans, handcuffed to a bureaucrat’s desk in New York City, scaling the walls of the CDC, chaining ourselves to the FDA, planting tombstones at the NIH and then throwing colorful flares when the police on horseback began to charge our line.
Throwing our bodies on the line, we were a veritable band of brothers, fatalistic, cynical, but willing to fight to the end. The AZT chant said it all: “One drug, a billion dollars, big deal!” But then things really did begin to change. We had forced the government, and scientists and the health care industry to respond. And so we starting daring to hope.
I hope none of you think I am romanticizing those horrible days. And I don’t want anyone to think I am discounting the great number of lesbians and somewhat smaller collection of straight allies in our midst. But for gay men, it was inevitably a different experience. To be sure there was a lot of love, and even a fair amount of sex. But all too often the guy who had led the charge, or who had told the funniest stories sitting up overnight in jail cell, showed up at the next week’s meeting with those horrible purple lesions that inevitably spelled death…and we tried not to pull away even as we looked furtively at our own bodies to make sure we had not yet been tagged by the reaper.
In the 90’s the time for marching seemed to have at least faded, if not going completely away. The government spigots had begun to open, as had private pockets, to an unparalleled degree. We had a new challenge. Many of us who had manned the barricades felt called to undertake the challenge of building organizations to serve our own, and then to serve others who had been left out. Some of us built housing or expanded services, while others went to work in health care and in research, or even the bureaucracy of government, all still seeing our every day’s work as a critical part of the same struggle. Even as we were building new careers, we told ourselves we were still a part of bringing AIDS to an end.
Maybe it occurred earlier, but I still see Andrew Sullivan’s article, “When Plagues End”, published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on November 10, 1996, as the turning point. Perhaps he was only verbalizing the sentiment felt silently felt by many others when he declared, “For me the AIDS crisis is over.” But those words, whether spoken by Sullivan or only heard in our own minds, gave permission for thousands of gay men and our lesbian comrades, even those of us living with the virus, to abandon the battlefield, secure in the knowledge that, for us, at least, the crisis was over.
There is no denying that a material change had taken place. I remember in 1989, going with Keith Cylar, my now deceased partner to get his test result after a bout of thrush. Though he lived until 2004, the threat of death never lifted. When I, on the other-hand, sero-converted shortly after the turn of the century, it was already clear that I would have a full range of options that would allow me to manage the virus well into my senior years. But I have to admit that I am also in an extremely privileged position. Not only do I have great health insurance and personally know some of the best AIDS specialists in the world, but even if I lose my job, I live in a state that guarantees that I will always have access to health care, including even the most expensive AIDS medications.
It wasn’t just individuals who moved on once HAART therapy became available. Rather, it seems that sometime in the late 90’s, the entire organized gay and lesbian community voted by a clear majority that it was time to move on from AIDS to more pressing issues.
This consensus was driven home to me just a couple of years ago, when I was invited to keynote the annual banquet of Equality Alabama, and specifically to speak on the Campaign to End AIDS. A few weeks before the event, I received an e-mail indicating that the schedule had been revised. Evan Wolfson, of Marriage Equality had been invited to keynote in my stead. I called the chair of the planning committee to inquire and was told, “Most of our membership just felt that marriage is a more pressing issue for us right now.”
As consolation, I was given a workshop that afternoon….scheduled for the same time as Evan’s workshop on the gay marriage campaign. Now, I count Evan as a friend, and I certainly don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but the marriage workshop was packed out, standing room only, with more than two hundred people in the room. I had an attendance of five, two of whom were already die-hard C2EA activists.
Would it surprise you if I told you that out of several hundred people in attendance at the banquet that night, only a tiny handful were people of color? Would it surprise you to know that the largest constituency of people living with HIV in Alabama is men who have sex with men? And would it surprise you to know that more than 70% of people living with HIV in Alabama are African American?
I think you and I know why the gay community moved on once HAART became available. Let’s face it, Andrew Sullivan was right. For the vast majority of white gay men of even moderate income in the United States, AIDS ended as a crisis once the drugs came on line. We no longer had to watch our friends die or live ourselves in fear of the plague. In fact, whether because we headed prevention advice, or because we were just lucky, the statistics suggest that more than 75% of us are HIV negative. And because we often travel in packs that look like ourselves, AIDS for many of us is no longer even personal.
Of course the story is completely different if you are a Black gay or bi-sexual man. In that case, they odds are closer to one in two that you are infected. And you are far more likely than a white man to learn of your infection after you have had an AIDS-defining event, meaning the available treatments are going to be far less successful. While less dramatic, the difference is also obvious if you are a Latino gay man in the United States today.
I know that New York, San Francisco and L.A. have all at one time or another claimed to be the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. But a recent study underscores what many of us have known for a while now. The true epicenter of the epidemic today is Washington, D.C. In our Nation’s capital today, now more than one in every 20 people is living with HIV. And the more damning statistic: One out of every 7 Black men living in Washington, D.C. is infected with HIV….and, of course, the lion’s share of these men are men who are having sex with other men, whether we claim them as members of our community or not.
The reality is that AIDS is no longer so much a gay disease in the United States as it is a disease of race and poverty. And that brings to light a dirty secret about the organized and politically engaged gay community. We are overwhelmingly white and reasonably well-off, and our movement is almost exclusively about rights for ourselves and people like us.
The recent debate over the exclusion of persons of transgendered experience from Employment Non-Discrimination Act sadly makes my point. What does it say about us that Barney Frank, with the full support, it might add, of Nancy Pelosi, could so easily drop transgendered people from the ENDA bill that just passed the US House of Representatives? Well, if nothing else, it clearly says that no matter how much trans folk have fought side by side in the trenches with gay men and lesbians, we still don’t fully claim them as our own. Trans people are “other”, and as other, are expendable.
It was somewhat gratifying to see the number of LGBT groups who came out in opposition to this horrible betrayal. But, as it turns out, the largest of our organizations, the one to which we contribute as a community by far the largest dollars, , the Human Rights Campaign Fund, had been secretly pressing for this action all awhile, having only recently been shamed into trans inclusion in the first place.
By the way, speaking of Nancy Pelosi, can anyone hear explain to me how we could let her add $28 million to the Federal government’s existing annual $176 million in funding for abstinence only education without us raising a howl of protest? Pelosi’s justification was that $28 million was a small price to pay for getting other progressive funding passed. But that’s a crock, and a dangerous one at that. Not only does abstinence until marriage not work, but it is homophobic to its core, perpetuating among the children it claims to serve the myth that sexually transgressive people are morally degenerate. Even more, federal grants for abstinence-only-education fund the infrastructure of a right-wing movement dedicated to our destruction. But a Democratic Speaker, representing one of the most progressive districts in Congress, supports funding these organizations to the tune of over $200 million a year.
In a letter published in the current issue of The Advocate about the debate over trans inclusion in ENDA, a reader wrote, “As a gay man, I am tired of being told what I should think and what I should feel just because I am attracted to other men. At a gay synagogue in New York City recently, a straight guest speaker actually said, ‘Because you are all gay, I know you will be able to empathize with the plight of Mexican immigrants and their fight for equality.’ This kind of knee-jerk stupidity has got to stop, and assuming that because I am gay, I not only relate to but actually understand and care about transgender issues is no different.”
I don’t believe it is just a coincidence that the larger gay and lesbian community walked of the battlefield when AIDS clearly became a Black disease. It was no longer us who was perceived to be dying. It was “other”, and other is always dispensable. Our use of the term “men who have sex with men” and the “down low” serve only to increase the distance. “They” don’t claim us, so we don’t have to claim them. But imagine how different the world would be if people like Harvey Milk hadn’t stood up for people like me when I was a young person growing up in south Texas, still lacking the courage to call myself gay.
It’s not just Black gay and bisexual men and trans people that we walk away from when we walk away from AIDS. We’ve also walked away from many gay white men too marginalized to make it into the life boat, and we have walked away from women and girls, mainly Black women and girls, and folk generally marginalized by the larger society in which we live. The truth is, that when our community turns its back on AIDS, we turn our back on the very idea of civil rights and social and economic justice being our cause.
I need to be clear that I am not picking on Equality Alabama, and I appreciate well that at the time of that conference to which I referred, they were fighting a loosing battle against a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The deprioritization of AIDS has taken place among gay organizations all over this country over the last decade. I also want to be clear that I want the right to marriage as much as the next person….and I want all of the other rights that have been denied persons of LGBT experience for so long. But if what we are truly engaged in is a struggle for social and economic justice, it can’t just be about my rights.
We in the organized LGBT community are often incredulous that so many African Americans can distinguish their historical struggle for civil rights from our own. Yet, we fail to see the devastation being wrought among African American men who have sex with men in DC, or Brooklyn or Jackson, Mississippi, for that matter, as intrinsic to us, much less to see the connection between our struggle and that of people living with HIV and AIDS around the globe.
The reality of AIDS is that it is caused by a virus; but that virus would not have created the pandemic that now exists if it were not fueled by homophobia, racism, and sexism. AIDS is a disease that persists as a consequence of economic and social marginalization and discrimination. Whether it was gay men and then Haitians in the 80’s, or sex workers and people addicted to injection drugs today, AIDS has been able to wreck its havoc because it has in the main taken the lives of people deemed expendable. And that is why AIDS continues to be the preeminent civil rights issue of our day, whether we want to own it or not.
Even before I had the courage to publicly declare my sexual orientation, I knew to be grateful that God had made me gay. Being gay, I knew early on, went way beyond just being sexually attracted to men. The otherness of my sexual orientation propelled me out of the small-minded fundamentalist community into which I had been born. Being gay forced me to make my own way, to think for myself instead of accepting the given truths with which I had been raised.
Being sexually transgressive made transgendered people my brothers and sisters even without my understanding all of the complexities of gender identity. Being gay required that I understand that sexism persists as the root cause of homophobia… And it didn’t take being sero-postive for me to realize some 24 years ago that the first person I knew personally to die from the virus, an African American female sex-worker in New Haven, Connecticut, died for me.
Whether we in the gay community like it our not, AIDS is still our disease. It is ours because the many faces of AIDS, whether gay or straight, male or female, living in Haiti or South Africa, Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C., represent our struggle to survive and live our lives whole.