More than 350 AIDS activists and their allies from 36 states met with their senators and representatives on Tuesday following a series of strategy sessions on Monday with experts as part of an annual networking conference and lobbying day known as AIDSWatch.
The event is sponsored by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and organized by three national AIDS advocacy organizations – AIDS United, Treatment Access Expansion Project and the U.S. People Living With HIV Caucus. It’s billed as the nation’s largest annual constituent-based national HIV/AIDS advocacy event.
“With new advances in treatment, improved access to care through health reform and new prevention technology that includes Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), huge strides have been made in reaching the end of AIDS,” a statement released by organizers says.
“However, success in this battle will depend on key legislative efforts that include ongoing support and modernization of the Ryan White Care Act, removing the ban on federal funds for syringe exchange programs, ensuring funding and support for comprehensive sexual health education, and addressing outdated HIV-criminalization laws across the United States,” the statement says.
Among those participating in AIDSWatch activities this week were six of Elizabeth Taylor’s grandchildren, her stepdaughter Kate Burton and her great-grandson, Finn McMurray, 17. All of them traveled to the nation’s capital “to raise awareness about the continued importance of safe sex education and carry on their legendary grandmother’s activism,” a statement by the Taylor Foundation says.
Also participating in the events, including congressional visits, was actor and singer Daniel Franzese, who stars as ‘Eddie Bear’ on the HBO series “Looking,” in which he plays an HIV-positive character.
In addition, former child actor Danny Pintauro from the TV series “Who’s the Boss,” who went on to play other film and TV roles before coming out last year as HIV positive and an AIDS activist, joined fellow activists at AIDSWatch events.
“This is my second year here for this,” Franzese told the Blade. “And as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation I will come any time they need me to be here.”
Pintauro said this was the first AIDSWatch event he has attended and he’s excited about meeting and interacting with seasoned activists who are helping him on his journey to push for an end to the epidemic as an activist. He said he was also looking forward to joining fellow activists in advocating for the pending legislation backed by AIDSWatch officials in congressional visits.
“This is brand new to me and I’ve been looking forward to this for months and months,” he said. “For me this is so exciting because I knew I would be learning so much.”
At a reception Monday night at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, the Taylor grandchildren presented the second annual Elizabeth Taylor Legislative Leadership Award to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and posthumously to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in recognition of their effort to advocate for comprehensive sex education in the nation’s schools.
AIDSWatch officials presented the event’s Congressional Leadership Award to Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the nation’s first openly gay U.S. senator; and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) in recognition of their work to push for legislation to fight AIDS.
Baldwin told the gathering she first became involved in LGBT rights and efforts to address AIDS as an elected official in 1986, when she won election to the Dane County, Wisc., board of supervisors. Now, 30 years later, things have gotten “much better” from the early years of the AIDS epidemic, she said, but the work of community-based advocates like those participating in AIDSWatch remains crucial for bringing about change.
“Please know that I will be your partner in the Senate, but also please know that none of us could do this without you and your voices and your advocacy and your visibility,” Baldwin said. “Thank you for being here on Capitol Hill this evening and for the work that you do day in and day out to advocate.”
Other members of Congress that spoke at the reception on Monday and who were introduced as longtime supporters of important AIDS-related legislation were Reps. Rick Lawson (D-Wash.), David Price (D-N.C.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). Coons addressed the gathering through a recorded video played at the event.
Others honored at the reception for accomplishments associated with addressing the AIDS epidemic included Arianna Lint, a Florida transgender activist who has worked for several organizations providing services to the trans Latina community; Gregorio Millett, a nationally recognized epidemiologist and researcher specializing in federal HIV policies with the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and Mark Misrok, co-founder and president of the New York-based National Working Positive Coalition, which provides services for people with HIV.
Michael Kaplan, president and CEO of AIDS United, said this year’s AIDSWatch events, including the congressional lobbying, attracted the largest number of participants ever.
“We have 36 states represented – over 350 individuals,” he said at Monday night’s reception. “They’re about to do 241 meetings on Capitol Hill. And it feels like the community mobilizing and will is growing at a time we need it because we know how to end AIDS,” he said. “We just need the political will and I think we’re going to get there.”