Why now? The need for HIV and AIDS advocacy in 2017

the voice and vision of a new generation

Why now? The need for HIV and AIDS advocacy in 2017

December 1, 2017

This World AIDS Day comes at a particularly pressing time. 36 years after the onset of the epidemic, HIV and AIDS remain prevalent issues, with more than 37 million people living with them. More than 11.8 million of those people are between the ages 15 and 24, with this demographic accounting for more than half of new cases.

But what is so urgent now? Why are cases continuing to increase, especially among youth? Why aren’t more people reacting?

The issue is that a new type of silencing is taking place. Whereas just a year ago, it seemed that youth were no longer aware of the prevalence and severity of the disease, it is now the U.S. government that is the largest advocate of HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, and education erasure. Actions within the administration have already been centered on dismantling Obamacare, stripping Medicaid from millions of low-income people, and barring federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Trump's FY 2018 budget alone proposed to cut the CDC’s HIV prevention program by $150 million (19%). It seeks to slash the Ryan White Programs—an attempt to eliminate AIDS Education and Training Centers (AETC) and reduce funding to the Special Projects of National Significance (SPNS) by $25 million. With a proposed $7.2 billion reduction to the National Institute of Health (NIH), HIV/AIDS research would take a $550 million hit. SAMHSA’s Minority AIDS initial programs and Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) under HUD, also remain threatened.

The larger issue is that HIV & AIDS are already concentrated within poor, marginalized, and historically oppressed communities of color. We already don’t hear much about it in the media. Even when it is discussed, as researcher Diego Mora, Next Generation Leader of the McCain Institute, shows, 42% of media coverage remains centered around research on a cure for HIV, while prevention and treatment are referenced only a combined 28% of the time. The stigma and discrimination that surround HIV & AIDS are found only in 8% of HIV & AIDS-related reporting. There is also the issue of adequate coverage, concern, and representation. The lack of concern over HIV and AIDS, especially from millennials who did not directly experience the epidemic and panic of the 1980s, is troubling. Combined with the disinterest in HIV and AIDS from the federal government and the hindrance of providing resources to the public, this further renders invisible the communities most vulnerable to HIV, as well as the overall prevalence of HIV and AIDS.

According to the CDC, Black transgender women bear the brunt of living with HIV and AIDS, and often lack access to adequate resources to cope and thrive. They maintain infection rates higher than trans women of other races.  In fact, Black Americans—transgender and cisgender— are more likely to be impacted by HIV than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. HIV/AIDS advocacy is therefore an inherent component of yielding racial justice and trans equality. And yet, communities most affected are neither represented in the media nor given adequate room to share their stories.

Historically disenfranchised voices must be heard. Positive representations of HIV-positive transwomen of color, like those featured in the Greater Than AIDS campaign #TransEmpowered, are essential pieces of media that portray these women's identities as intersectional and valued.

HIV and AIDS cannot be categorized as insular issues, as burdens placed solely on the backs of those most impacted by HIV and AIDS. Our society cannot promote advancements in research or destigmatization when less than 50% of those infected have access to the most basic forms of antiretroviral therapy. Around the world, trans people are repeatedly incarcerated for being trans, for being HIV-positive, and/or for partaking in sex work, even when trans women of color are most frequently denied employment, housing, and education opportunities.

HIV and AIDS statuses and their intersection with other marginalized identities cannot remain ignored. Trump's administration does not only target those living with HIV and AIDS, it also targets access to low income housing and welfare programs. It reduces resources in education, criminalizes instead of rehabilitates drug users, and dismantles any safety net for undocumented immigrants. This means that in fighting the prison industrial complex, we must expose the mistreatment of jailed LGBTQ individuals, many of whom are often denied their medication. In fighting for immigrant rights, we must realize that undocumented immigrants living with HIV are unable to attain the benefits of public services (toward which they often contribute funding) and are denied health care, access to the knowledge and treatment that any human being should be able to attain. In protesting for Black Lives Matter, we must amplify the voices of the Black gay, bisexual, and trans communities most heavily affected by HIV and AIDS. Indeed, "gay and bisexual men account for more than half of estimated new HIV diagnoses among African Americans," according to the CDC.

In advocating for full LGBTQ acceptance, we must prioritize creating space for those most marginalized members of the community, including Black and trans people living with positive statuses, and meeting their needs. We must push for colleges and public schools to properly inform students about preventing and living with HIV and AIDS. We must make sure that doctors stay properly informed about treatment and prevention (including PReP) and that such resources are made accessible to those in the greatest need. We must advocate against the criminalization and harmful stigmatization of positive individuals. Victim blaming and status shaming must end.

Under the Trump administration, tensions are high, stigma is rampant, and any prior safety nets for disenfranchised people are rapidly becoming dismantled. On the one hand, the U.S. is becoming more polarized, with hate crimes committed at increasing rates.The current administration is working adamantly to legitimize and legalize discrimination against people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Muslim people, and women But all of these identities struggle for survival under the umbrella of heteropatriarchal oppression—liberation and true equity can only commence through an understanding that the spread of HIV intersects with other marginalized identities and social systems.

As a millennial myself, I pledge to continue the fight against HIV and AIDS, against the repression and erasure of marginalized voices, against the stigmatizing frameworks of our society. As activists and allies, our job is to push for media coverage of those most impacted by the disease, call our local government representatives to oppose discriminating legislation, and to express the stories, the voices, the humanity of the populations that our current government administration is trying to silence. 

The fight against HIV and AIDS must remain central to our social justice agenda. As millennials, we are angry, we are empowered, we are vocal, and we have the agency to combine our efforts and be the generation to end the HIV epidemic. There’s no time to remain silent within a system, it is our time to push our own agenda forward.

Kali Villarosa is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a senior at Skidmore College studying international affairs, political science, and intergroup relations. She received the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs fellowship and will begin her masters in international affairs, followed by three years in the U.S. Foreign Service.

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