A recent report that shows 14 percent of gay men in D.C. are HIV positive must be a wake-up call to the entire community. I agree with Council member David Catania that these numbers are totally unacceptable. The release of the study clearly indicates that we need to upgrade the District’s education and testing programs. Because this study may have been skewed to wealthier men and gay men who go to bars, we also need to do what Ron Simmons of Us Helping Us suggested and conduct “an accurate study that reflects the entire community.”
I call on the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration to immediately reconvene the summit on HIV/AIDS organizations and health care providers from across the District that was held in April 2007. The summit was part of a promise by Mayor Adrian Fenty during his campaign to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I participated in that first summit but there was never a follow up to that meeting. It is time to bring that group back together to review where we have come from, where we are and to share new ideas and have input into where we go from here.
It is crucial that we discuss and formulate new plans to fight this epidemic, which impacts not only the gay community but all communities across the city. It is clear that we are still not doing enough to fight the epidemic. We need to find new ways to educate people across the District on the impact of HIV/AIDS on their lives. The numbers of gay men who have HIV/AIDS in the District and their lack of understanding of how serious this is, along with the numbers released earlier in the year for the entire community scream “more work is needed and it is needed now!”
I am from a generation that read the obituary columns each day to see who we knew that had died of AIDS. I had to rewrite my address book on a weekly basis. I sat by the bedside of friends who became emaciated and went blind before they died. I attended and cried at countless funerals of men who died much too early.
I am thankful that the younger generation doesn’t have to see that today. But because they don’t, as a community we need to recognize that those men between the ages of 30 and 40 who were studied in the report and didn’t even know their partner’s HIV status and don’t use condoms never learned the same fear of AIDS. Many of them went to school before education on HIV/AIDS was a part of the curriculum. They grew up to think that AIDS is a chronic disease that you keep under control with a pill.
I recently had a conversation with two young men in their 30s and one of them said it wasn’t the responsibility of an HIV-positive person to inform his potential sex partner of his status. I find that scary. You should inform your partner of any sexually transmitted disease you may have whether it is HIV, herpes or any other.
I have marched in 20 AIDS Walks, served on the Whitman-Walker Development Committee for 10 years and now sit on its community advisory committee. I find it frightening that today, when we know how to prevent HIV/AIDS, people are still becoming infected at alarming rates.
The studies show that we are doing more testing and that more people are discovering their HIV status earlier and with medication preventing cases of full blown AIDS. That is a good thing. But if people are still becoming HIV positive it means that they will be spending their lives on medication at an extremely high cost to the community, to themselves and their families, which is something that should be unacceptable to all of us. The impact on the District’s healthcare budget is huge and it will be cheaper in the long run to provide the education needed to prevent this disease than to pay for it later to keep people alive. Our young people need to know that living with HIV or AIDS is not easy and we need to educate them on what the impact on their lives will be.
We are facing a community-wide health emergency and must treat it as such. We need our community leaders and politicians to speak out on this epidemic every day, at every community meeting, and in every faith-based institution. Only through education will we finally get a handle on this epidemic and it must start now and we must come together to determine how people will learn.
Peter Rosenstein is a D.C.-based LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.