Guest Post: The need for HIV & AIDS advocacy within larger social justice movements

World AIDS Day marks a time to remember, a time to reunite, and a time to not forget. 35 years after the onset of the epidemic, HIV & AIDS remain prevalent issues, with more than 36 million people living with them. 11.8 million of those people are between the ages 15 and 24, with this demographic accounting for more than half of new cases. And yet, for many of these young people, HIV & AIDS have either drifted from their radar or their voices have continued to be silenced.

As a millennial, I have yet to see a world without HIV & AIDS, but still it seems like an epidemic of the past — a horrific period of the ‘80s that my parents lived through. I live within an activist generation; my peers and I are active in feminist, LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter movements — we fight, preach, and protest against police brutality and mass incarceration, advocate for voting rights and human rights, but somehow many of us overlook HIV & AIDS, though they lay at the intersection of many other inequalities.

Because HIV & AIDS are not “new” problems—and are concentrated within poor, marginalized, and historically oppressed communities of color—we 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 surrounds HIV & AIDS is found only in 8% of HIV & AIDS-related reporting. When discussing at risk populations, infection rates among children dominate the media conversation, even as this demographic makes up only a small fraction of the population affected by the disease. So the issue remains: around the world, with the decrease in prevalence among most populations, and because it no longer necessarily stands as a death sentence for most who contract HIV or AIDS, many people don’t recognize HIV & AIDS as immediate or lingering issues.

Credit: Diego Mora

Despite progress in prevention and treatment and declining infection rates among some demographics, HIV & AIDS are not things of the past. This seemingly endless era of misinformation, lack of awareness, and ongoing stigma creates the kind of conditions that continuously lead to new infections. Shaming and insufficient access to information, contraception, treatment and support contribute to a perfect storm--an ongoing health crisis that targets the most marginalized among us.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), transgender women who are Black bear the brunt of living with HIV & 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 most likely to be impacted by HIV than any other racial or ethnic group in the country. HIV & AIDS advocacy is therefore an inherent component for 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. The additional burden of HIV & AIDS on the trans community perpetuates exclusion and stereotyping, promotes violence against trans individuals, and normalizes the anti-trans exclusion and systemic discrimination. 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 potray these women's identities as intersectional and valued.

HIV & AIDS cannot be categorized as an insular issue, as a burden placed solely on the backs of those most impacted by HIV & 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 for partaking in sex work, even when trans women of color are most frequently denied employment, housing, and education opportunities.

HIV & AIDS statuses and their intersection with other identities, cannot remain ignored. 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 HIV-positive undocumented immigrants are unable to attain the benefits of public services (which they often contribute funds toward) 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 the disease. 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.

Photo credit: Kali Villarosa

In the face of the 2016 presidential election, tensions are high, stigma is rampant, and the U.S. remains polarized on a myriad of issues that impact disenfranchised peoples' daily lives and basic needs. People are seeking to legitimize discrimination against people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Muslim people, and women in striking and dangerous ways. But within these identities, there is an overlap of people struggling to survive under the common denominator of oppression. It is important for both activists and people who have never thought of themselves as such to become informed about issues surrounding HIV & AIDS. It is important to understand how the continued spread of the disease intersects with other social systems. It is important to advocate for those most threatened—those whose voices are most often ignored-- and to equip the media to adequately cover the people most impacted by rates of infection. In doing so, numerous forms of injustice will be weakened. As a millennial, as a social justice advocate, it is my job to team up with leaders within the HIV & AIDS movement. It is my job to amplify the voices of silenced populations.

We must prioritize fighting HIV & AIDS as part of our larger 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 & AIDS epidemic.

-Kali Villarosa, GLAAD Campus Ambassador, Skidmore College

GLAAD Campus Ambassadors are a volunteer network of LGBTQ and ally college and university students who will work with GLAAD and within their local communities to build an LGBTQ movement to accelerate acceptance and end hate and discrimination.

If you would like to learn more about the GLAAD Campus Ambassador Program, please contact Clare Kenny— GLAAD Youth Engagement Strategist.