The head of the National Association of People with AIDS stressed that he feels it remains important to honor those who have lost their battle with the virus.
“We deserve to have our own day because we have to commemorate,” said Frank Oldham, Jr., as he discussed National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day that will take place on Sept. 27. “For me, AIDS has always been the Holocaust for gay men, gay men of color. It doesn’t matter. This for our community is the worst thing that happened to us, so I’m very proud that we have National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.”
NAPWA will mark National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which it first organized in 2008, with a day-long conference at the Barbara Jordan Conference Center at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in downtown Washington on Sept. 28. It will feature panels on gay men and HIV/AIDS policy, the impact that the 2010 health care reform law that President Obama signed has had on those with the virus, dating among those who are positive and other topics. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is also scheduled to hold a press conference with NAPWA outside the Wilson Building to commemorate National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Oldham noted that NAPWA has also invited Human Rights Campaign staffers, gay doctors with HIV and other HIV/AIDS service providers to participate in the conference. He said his organization has also invited California Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, gay U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Dr. Gregory Pappas of the D.C. Department of Health’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration to take part.
HIV/AIDS activists and others will also release balloons in Dupont Circle to commemorate those who were lost to the virus on the day itself.
“This day is important because of our history,” said Oldham, who lived in New York City’s Chelsea and Greenwich Village neighborhoods during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “It’s as important as Stonewall because it’s a mark on our history.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.2 million Americans were living with HIV at the end of 2008 — and 20 percent of them were unaware of their status. The CDC further estimates that men who have sex with men accounted for 49 percent of people with the virus in the United States during this same period. White and black MSM were the groups with the highest rate of new infections in 2009.
The CDC further noted that the epidemic has killed nearly 594,000 Americans since it reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS in 1981.
Oldham, who tested positive for the HIV virus 23 years ago, said that homophobia, racism and socio-economic status within communities of color remain barriers in preventing the spread of HIV and treating those with the virus.
“That’s a huge barrier, especially for people who are poor and disenfranchised,” he said. “Today we have an opportunity as gay men to talk about homophobia as a barrier, being open, being out and saying to people get tested, know your status. But also we have an opportunity to prevent new infections and we need to be part of the solution.”
Oldham also defended his comments to the Washington Blade ahead of last year’s National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day where he described bathhouses, circuit parties and other gatherings as part of a “beautiful, gay male culture.”
“The bathhouses, the circuit parties, the cafes, the gayborhoods we call home are all part of that culture as well as marriage — the right to get married,” he said. “For two gay men who want to get married, who want to adopt kids, who want to raise a family like that, that’s all part of it. The beautiful thing about gay male culture is that it represents so many different kinds of people.”
Oldham, who lead the city’s response to HIV/AIDS under then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in the early 1990s, further applauded D.C.’s response to the epidemic. He specifically praised the nation’s capital’s treatment-on-demand that connects people with HIV to care and the city’s needle exchange program that has prompted a 72 percent decrease in new infections among intravenous drug between 2007 and 2010.
“We have a city that I think for PWAs [people with AIDS] is one of the best places that you can possibly live—there’s care, there’s compassion. Of course there’s going to be AIDS stigma and homophobia in some places, but having a mayor that takes the leadership in preventing that and is outspoken about that makes a big difference,” said Oldham, who stressed he would like to see D.C. secure additional federal funding to further sustain these programs. “The District has become what I wanted it to become when I was here, the national model for how you deal with AIDS in a major city. And it is to be commended for it.”
Oldham also praised the national HIV/AIDS strategy that the Obama administration announced in 2010.
“HIV for all the tragedy that it has brought, has really forced us to have the opportunity to advance our social justice issues,” he said, noting it specifically calls for the reduction of homophobia and anti-AIDS stigma through culturally competent prevention and treatment programs. “By implementing the national AIDS strategy, you have to enforce the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS so when they get tested, they don’t go to jail. It begins to enforce things like that.”