Recently, over dinner, a friend confided in me that he was starting on HIV medication for the first time. Although I’ve known he was HIV positive, the realization that he was about to start taking medication — a process that will last him a lifetime — hit home. Here he was, late 30s, good looking and strong, but carrying a virus that will, without proper medication, kill him.
Despite being mature, coming from a good home, having a great job and a wide circle of friends, he felt demoralized, guilty and alone. He made a stupid mistake, and now he was dealing with the repercussions. So we talked and that night he went home and took the two pills that will forever become a part of his life. My friend is living the new reality of HIV in America — he’s going to live a long, normal life, but he will forever be dependent on expensive drugs for survival.
According to a recent study published by the DC HIV/AIDS Administration, my friend is not alone. Fourteen percent of gay men in the District are HIV positive. The number is staggering. Despite nearly 30 years of research and education on the disease, the number of gay men living with HIV in Washington is increasing. Even more shocking, the same study estimates 25 percent of black, gay men in D.C. are HIV positive along with 20 percent of gay men over age 30. The numbers paint a picture of a disease running rampant in our community. So what is being done?
First ask, “What am I doing to stop the spread of HIV?” When was the last time you got an HIV test? When was the last time you didn’t practice safe sex? When was the last time you assumed someone’s HIV status without asking the question? Answer these questions honestly and you may find, despite everything you know, you are not doing enough to protect yourself, and others, from HIV.
Second, ask, what your community is doing to support HIV prevention efforts. LGBT organizations do a criminally bad job of discussing issues of gay men and HIV. HIV and gay men’s health issues are, in many cases, actively avoided by some of our most prominent spokespeople. “HIV is not a gay disease,” they say. True, but it is a disease disproportionately affecting gay men living in D.C. We need to remind our civil rights leaders that rampant HIV rates drain our community’s human and capital resources and, as our public face, they have the responsibility to raise awareness of HIV prevention — at least when addressing the community.
What about the local business community — the gyms, bars, stores, clubs and restaurants catering to a predominantly gay clientele? What are they doing to support community-based prevention efforts? When was the last time you saw condoms distributed at area gyms? When was the last time you saw an HIV prevention message promoted at area bars? If we cannot get our own community to support HIV prevention efforts, what can we expect from others?
Third, ask, “What is the District government doing to support prevention efforts in the gay community?” To date, the Fenty administration has not given a dime to the LGBT Center’s HIV prevention programs, despite two consecutive years of funding applications. The City Council is no better. Council Member Vincent Grey personally worked to ensure that Effi Barry HIV/AIDS program funding went exclusively east of the river, a decision that left nearly all LGBT organizations (located west of the Anacostia) ineligible for a major source of the District’s HIV prevention funds. City government has almost completely failed to support the LGBT community’s grassroots HIV prevention efforts.
There is blame to go around. District government has been negligent in supporting HIV prevention efforts in the gay community, but we are all responsible for our community’s health. Each of us is guilty of not doing enough, not caring enough, not talking enough. But that can change. We can start by taking control of our own health and get tested for HIV every six months. We can become empowered consumers, asking doctors for an HIV test if one is not offered. We can recognize the truth, that we live in a community at high risk for HIV and make sure we always, ALWAYS, practice safe sex. We can support prevention efforts by donating to, or volunteering for, HIV organizations providing services to gay men. And we can back local leaders who support HIV prevention efforts in the gay community.
As for my friend, it’s been two weeks since he began taking medication and he feels fine. He is taking steps to ensure he protects himself and others: taking his meds, disclosing his status to potential partners, always using a condom. But for all of all the medication, and all the empowerment, the truth is he is still scared, still scarred, by a virus he will never shake. He is the human face of the HIV epidemic in D.C. He knows he won’t die from HIV, his struggle (and that of too many in our community) seems to be how to live with it.
Victor Maldonado is a District resident working to raise HIV awareness in the LGBT community and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.