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AIDS 2012: “Keep the Promise” march draws more than 2,000

Marchers demanded President Obama and others do more to combat HIV/AIDS

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HIV/AIDS activists march along 15th Street, N.W. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

More than 2,000 HIV/AIDS activists from around the world took part in the “Make the Promise” march through downtown Washington on Sunday.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, journalist Tavis Smiley, Dr. Cornel West and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young were among those who urged President Obama and other elected officials to do more to combat the domestic epidemic during an earlier rally near the Washington Monument.

“We believe today will be the start of a turning point in the battle against AIDS,” said AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein during a pre-rally press conference. “Today is not just about a march on Washington to end AIDS; this is about a rebirth of AIDS activism across this country. Our message today is the war against AIDS has not been won. Our message today is that the world must keep its promise. Now is not the time to withdraw and also today that the voices of people living with HIV in this organization will be heard.”

The gathering took place hours before Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others spoke at the International AIDS Conference’s opening plenary at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Obama is scheduled to address the gathering later this week in a short video message, but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and some HIV/AIDS activists have criticized him for not attending the conference in person. (Comedian Margaret Cho, who emceed the “Keep the Promise” rally, noted that the president actually flew over the Mall during the event on his way to meet with victims of the Aurora, Colo, movie theater massacre and their families.)

“[AIDS] is such an important issue — it is a global issue,” Cho told the Blade before the rally as she responded to a question about Obama’s absence from the International AIDS Conference. “It is something that we really need to talk about and deal with and so it’s disappointing to think that he wouldn’t be there, but at the same time the fact we’re all here — we are American. We’re the world and that’s all that matters. This is really for us and it will inspire I think the government to get more involved when they see all these people out here dealing with this, talking about this, celebrating ourselves.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which organized the rally and march, has repeatedly criticized the White House for what it maintains is the administration’s inadequate response to the epidemic. In addition to the president’s decision not to speak at AIDS 2012, the organization has criticized Obama for cutting funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It has also accused the administration of not doing enough to eliminate AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting lists.

“No matter how well-intentioned he is, no matter how much better he is than the other choice, he will end up another garden variety politician,” said Smiley. “He will be transactional and not transformational if we don’t… in the spirit of love hold him accountable.”

Weinstein also asked Smiley and West on stage to discuss the role that homophobia within the black community impacts the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country.

“We got to recognize that homophobia is as evil as white supremacy, as male supremacy, as anti-Jewish hatred, anti-other bigotry and anti-Islam sensibility,” said West. “We want integrity and consistency and the only way to get it is you’ve got to bare witness.”

Sharpton highlighted marriage rights for same-sex couples and other civil rights struggles during his speech. He also singled out the black church and other faith traditions for not doing enough to combat HIV/AIDS.

“They have not dealt with the issue because of their own bias and their own homophobia and their own misconception of what this is,” said Sharpton. “Jesus healed people. He didn’t interviewed people. He never asked people why they were sick, all he asked is do you want to be made whole. Your job reverend, your job rabbi, your job imam is not to condemn people; it’s to heal people. And if you’re not down with the healing, you need to turn in your collar and get another kind of vocation.”

 

Cho: We need a cure

Cho said her HIV/AIDS activism began in San Francisco as a teenager during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s.

“It was a really disheartening thing to grow up around the disease and watching it actually kill people. I would see particularly healthy grown men really in the prime of their lives and everyday I would see them slowly start to succumb to the disease,” she told the Blade. “It was really a terrible awakening about mortality and the terrible nature of an incurable disease and also the incredible ignorance and suffering around it in the community in San Francisco and the gay community. It was so tough.”

More than three decades after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS, Cho said that this country has made “great strides” in helping people live with HIV. She stressed that she feels a number of challenges remain in the fight against the virus.

“There’s this idea that AIDS is gone, it’s over,” said Cho. “A lot of young people are not paying attention to the way I was raised with it. In my culture there was so much fear around it. There was a lot of not knowing the facts. At this point in time, 30 years later, the fear has subsided. It’s become a kind of apathy.”

Cho further reflected upon the march when asked about Washington’s HIV rates, which are among the highest in the world.

“Every time there’s a march on Washington, it is really an inspiring thing,” she said, noting she attended the 2000 Millennium March on Washington for gay rights. “It was so amazing and I really feel like that march really led to people starting to realize that gay marriage can happen and now we’re seeing that over the last 12 years. It’s taken 12 years, but we’re starting to see it happen. That was I think a catalyst. When we have a march on Washington — and this is solely devoted to awareness, AIDS awareness, AIDS education and really just healing this city — that’s really powerful.”

Those who attended the “Keep the Promise” march and rally shared Cho’s activism towards ending the epidemic.

“The citizens of this country need to step up,” said Omar Lopez of Austin, Tex., who was discharged from the Navy after he said he was falsely accused of being HIV-positive. “They need to get educated, stop being tabooed about it, stop being stigmatized. It doesn’t discriminate.”

Christine Dubreeze, an HIV/AIDS service provider who works with South African farm workers, told the Blade that she hopes groups that work with people living with the virus receive adequate funding from governments, UNAIDS and other global bodies.

“The most important [thing] is medication and really the use of condoms,” she said as she marched along 15th Street, N.W., near the Wilson Building. “But people don’t change their attitudes and their behaviors.”

(Washington Blade photo gallery by Michael Key)

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Commentary

Journalists are not the enemy

Wednesday marks five years since Blade reporter detained in Cuba

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The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on the country's independent media. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wednesday marked five years since the Cuban government detained me at Havana’s José Marti International Airport.

I had tried to enter the country in order to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of LGBTQ and intersex Cubans. I found myself instead unable to leave the customs hall until an airport employee escorted me onto an American Airlines flight back to Miami.

This unfortunate encounter with the Cuban regime made national news. The State Department also noted it in its 2020 human rights report.

Press freedom and a journalist’s ability to do their job without persecution have always been important to me. They became even more personal to me on May 8, 2019, when the Cuban government for whatever reason decided not to allow me into the country.  

Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers after the Cuban government detained him at Havana’s José Marti International Airport on May 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘A free press matters now more than ever’

Journalists in the U.S. and around the world on May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day.

Reporters without Borders in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index notes that in Cuba “arrests, arbitrary detentions, threats of imprisonment, persecution and harassment, illegal raids on homes, confiscation, and destruction of equipment — all this awaits journalists who do not toe the Cuban Communist Party line.” 

“The authorities also control foreign journalists’ coverage by granting accreditation selectively, and by expelling those considered ‘too negative’ about the government,” adds Reporters without Borders.

Cuba is certainly not the only country in which journalists face persecution or even death while doing their jobs.

• Reporters without Borders notes “more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces, including at least 22 in the course of their work” in the Gaza Strip since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Media groups have also criticized the Israeli government’s decision earlier this month to close Al Jazeera’s offices in the country.

• Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Washington Post contributor and Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva remain in Russian custody. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Post, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012.

• Reporters without Borders indicates nearly 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and 28 others have disappeared.

The Nahal Oz border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Nov. 21, 2016. Reporters without Borders notes the Israel Defense Forces have killed more than 100 Palestinian reporters in the enclave since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his World Press Freedom Day notes more journalists were killed in 2023 “than in any year in recent memory.”

“Authoritarian governments and non-state actors continue to use disinformation and propaganda to undermine social discourse and impede journalists’ efforts to inform the public, hold governments accountable, and bring the truth to light,” he said. “Governments that fear truthful reporting have proved willing to target individual journalists, including through the misuse of commercial spyware and other surveillance technologies.”

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who is a former journalist, in her World Press Freedom Day statement noted journalists “are more essential than ever to safeguarding democratic values.” 

“From those employed by international media organizations to those working for local newspapers, courageous journalists all over the world help shine a light on corruption, encourage civic engagement, and hold governments accountable,” she said.

President Joe Biden echoed these points when he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner here in D.C. on April. 27.

“There are some who call you the ‘enemy of the people,'” he said. “That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.”

I wrote in last year’s World Press Freedom Day op-ed that the “rhetoric — ‘fake news’ and journalists are the ‘enemy of the people’ — that the previous president and his followers continue to use in order to advance an agenda based on transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, islamophobia, and white supremacy has placed American journalists at increased risk.” I also wrote the “current reality in which we media professionals are working should not be the case in a country that has enshrined a free press in its constitution.”

“A free press matters now more than ever,” I concluded.

That sentiment is even more important today.

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Health

MISTR announces it’s now prescribing DoxyPE

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MISTR, the telemedicine provider that offers free online PrEP and long-term HIV care in all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico, announced it is now prescribing Doxycycline Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (DoxyPEP), an antibiotic that reduces bacterial STIs, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Patients can now use MISTR’s telehealth platform to receive DoxyPEP online for free, according to a release from the company.

With this launch, MISTR plans to offer patients access to post-exposure care, in addition to its existing preventive and long-term HIV treatment options, which include PrEP and antiretroviral therapy (ART). This comes at a time when the rate of STIs continue to rise. In 2022, more than 2.5 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia were reported in the U.S; of that population, gay and bisexual men are disproportionately affected, the company reported.

“Despite an ongoing STI epidemic affecting the LGBTQ+ community, there are few resources available for this underserved, vulnerable community to get the preventative medication they need,” said Tristan Schukraft, CEO and founder of MISTR. “I’m proud that MISTR is democratizing access to PrEP, HIV care, and now DoxyPEP.”

An NIH-funded study published by the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2023 found that doxycycline as post-exposure prophylaxis, now known as DoxyPEP, reduced syphilis by 87%, chlamydia by 88%, and gonorrhea by 55% in individuals taking HIV PrEP, and reduced syphilis by 77%, chlamydia by 74% and gonorrhea by 57% in people living with HIV. 

MISTR is a telemedicine platform offering free online access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and long-term HIV care Visit mistr.com for more information.

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Health

UNAIDS to commemorate Zero Discrimination Day’s 10th anniversary

UN agency urges global action to protect human rights

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A UNAIDS anti-discrimination exhibit at Tocumen International Airport in Panama in 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

As the world marks the 10th anniversary of Zero Discrimination Day; UNAIDS is sounding the alarm on the increasing threats to human rights, calling for renewed efforts to protect the rights of all individuals as a fundamental step towards ensuring health for everyone.

Established by UNAIDS a decade ago, Zero Discrimination Day aims to promote equality and fairness regardless of gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity or HIV status. The progress achieved over the past years is now in jeopardy, however, due to rising attacks on the rights of women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima emphasized the critical link between protecting human rights and safeguarding public health. 

“The attacks on rights are a threat to freedom and democracy and are harmful to health,” she said in a press release. “Stigma and discrimination obstruct HIV prevention, testing, treatment and care and hold back progress towards ending AIDS by 2030. It is only by protecting everyone’s rights that we can protect everyone’s health.”

Despite challenges, there has been notable progress. 

At the onset of the AIDS pandemic more than 40 years ago, two-thirds of countries criminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations. They are now decriminalized in two-thirds of countries. An additional 38 countries around the world have pledged to end HIV-related stigma and discrimination, contributing to positive changes that include 50 million more girls attending school compared to 2015.

To sustain and enhance these advancements; UNAIDS urges global support for women’s rights movements, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, economic justice, climate justice and peace initiatives. By standing with communities advocating for their rights, the U.N. aims to reinforce the collective effort towards a more inclusive and equitable world.

Zero Discrimination Day is observed on March 1.

Events and activities that will take place around the world throughout the month will serve as reminders of the essential lesson and call to action: Protecting everyone’s health is synonymous with protecting everyone’s rights.

“Through upholding rights for all, we will be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and secure a safer, fairer, kinder and happier world — for everyone,” said Byanyima.

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