Few Americans are offered the opportunity to attend an official event at the White House. This past Tuesday, I was one of those few Americans privileged to roam about the White House with a glass of champagne in hand while celebrating a benchmark in our nation's more than 30-year history of AIDS in America.
The day began with a special presentation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Assistant Secretary Dr. Howard Koh, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and Jeffrey Crowley, White House Director of the Office of National HIV/AIDS Policy. Secretary Sebelius was not shy when she spoke of the increased HIV-incidence and prevalence gay men are at risk for.
She went on to point out the incredible disparity gay black men face with HIV and the myth that all gay black men in Washington DC have AIDS. Many sitting around me were elated to hear Secretary Sebelius to identify us as gay men and not the CDC designation of "Men having Sex with Men (MSM)" that for too long limited our identity to who our sex partners are and leaving gay men living their lives openly and honestly invisible.
While I have yet to have the chance to read the strategy and implementation documents, based on the presentation, I'm confident that our President and his administration are working incredibly hard to address the domestic crisis of HIV/AIDS. The President and his administration have openly shared that the plan is not perfect, but it is a starting point for our nation to fix its infrastructure and, in tough economic times, make certain agencies are held accountable.
Rather than critiquing the newly released strategy, I encourage everyone to read a copy here and find something in the strategy that you can implement on the local level. Ask your Governor if your state has a strategy to address the epidemic within its jurisdiction. Ask your Mayor if they are willing to form an AIDS task force to identify goals for implementation in your community.
After the presentation of the strategy in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, nearly 200 people from the spectrum of the HIV/AIDS community lined up at the White House's Southeast Visitors Gate to celebrate and honor the tireless work of many in the HIV/AIDS community.
Don't tell anyone I said this, but I'll admit that, at times, I can be critical and, well, somewhat opinionated, but at the reception I was in complete awe. I was in awe that after more than 30 years, the President of the United States of America took the time to speak against the stigma that holds so many living with HIV/AIDS in bondage and hidden in the shadows of life.
While President Obama spoke, he parted the gray clouds that have dismissed the anguish and tears of so many of my brothers and sisters. As a gay man living with AIDS, I was proud to stand in the White House and say, "Thank you Mr. President" as I shook his hand. My soul that has been tortured for so long from silence, I began to heal from some of that pain.
During President Obama's comments, one of the more powerful moments for me personally, was when he stated,
Now, it's been nearly 30 years since a CDC publication called Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report first documented five cases of an illness that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS. In the beginning, of course, it was known as the "gay disease" -- a disease surrounded by fear and misunderstanding; a disease we were too slow to confront and too slow to turn back. In the decades since -- as epidemics have emerged in countries throughout Africa and around the globe -- we've grown better equipped, as individuals and as nations, to fight this disease.
Immediately my mind traveled back to July of 1984 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died 6 weeks later. I reflected on the personal letter I received at the time from President Ronald Reagan expressing his sympathy. It was a time when I lived in terror that my family and friends would realize I was gay. If I only knew that it wasn't a surprise! It was an era when President Reagan would not speak about the other kind of Caner, the Gay Cancer. Eleven years later, I would be diagnosed with that Cancer and two years later, was diagnosed with AIDS.
So without going into a rich and well deserved debate on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which will happen another time, I want to thank my President for helping heal deep wounds dating back to my adolescent years. Mr. President, you have helped so many to begin healing from the endless shame that our families and society has heaped on us.
I want to thank his staff in the Office of National HIV/AIDS Policy (ONAP) and the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) for making certain the conversation moved forward.
Look for a blog post over the weekend of inside photos from the White House reception.