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An Open Letter to Generation Y: HIV/AIDS Still Matters

2011 June 7
by Genya Shimkin

To my fellow Echo-Boomers:

Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Centers for Disease Control’s first announcement of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).  In the three decades since this initial communication, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)–the virus that causes AIDS–has infected tens of millions of people, and become a game-changer in the world of public health.  It has affected discourses of national and global security, devastated economies in the global south, and left millions of orphaned children behind.  And yet much of this generation seems so apathetic, so complacent, so bored with HIV/AIDS.  Make no mistake about it: HIV/AIDS Still matters.

Following the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, the gay community (especially in New York City) found a new strength and pride, stepping out of closets, back alleys, and dingy bars.  This community, in all its diverse and complicated glory, paved the way for the modern gay rights movement, but within 20 years many of its members were dead or dying.  In the early 1980s, when the etiology of HIV was still a mystery, gay men saw their small societal advances slip away in a tide of homophobia, fear, and stigma.

I was just four years old when Ryan White died, and a fetus when Rock Hudson succumbed to AIDS.  While I do have some HIV-positive friends, I do not personally know one person who has died of AIDS.  Many of us don’t, because we are too young or because today, in our world of ever-evolving medical technologies and pharmaceuticals, far fewer people are dying of AIDS in America.  Phenomenally powerful drug regimens keep HIV-positive men, women, and children alive for decades longer than anyone foresaw in 1990.  And these drugs have made all too many people all too complacent.

For us, AIDS was this big scary thing that happened when we were babies, but by the time we were old enough to understand what HIV was, we knew how it was transmitted, how to protect ourselves, and that it “wasn’t a death sentence anymore.”  We heard Magic Johnson on TV talking about how healthy he was.  We saw interviews with healthy-looking men and women who’d been living with HIV for 15 years.  To us, HIV wasn’t necessarily a threat.  And too many of our peers learned the hard way that while HIV is not a death sentence, it is a life-long infection that can require a daily pill regimen valued at approximately $25,000 per year.

To celebrate Gay Pride Month, as many of us do in June, it is impossible to ignore the history of HIV.  The men and women who fought for gay rights 25 years ago fought with a severely weakened and diminished force.  They yelled doubly loud on behalf of partners, lovers, friends, siblings, and children that were too weak to leave their homes.  Our generation, especially those of us who are LGBT, has nothing to compare this to, and owes much of our progress today–on issues such as marriage equality–to those who came before us, and those who died fighting.  But this is not simply a gay or LGBT issue.  It is a human issue; one that is not going away.

As doctors, researchers, and advocates look for vaccines and cures, we cannot take their advancements for granted.  The development of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) does not negate the need for condoms, clean needles, regular testing, and frank dialogue.  The existence of The Berlin Patient, whose HIV-infection was cured by a bone-marrow transplant (it’s more complicated than that: read up on it), does not mean that we are free to ignore the risks and treat our partners and our bodies so callously.  We owe it to the thousands of people who threw themselves at the mercy of drug companies, begging for just a few more months, and to the survivors, who told people “he died of cancer,” or suffered the indignity of being called a “roommate” at the funeral of a partner of five, ten, or twenty years.

While we sit comfortably behind our computers blogging and proselytizing and chatting online, they stuck out their hands, their faces marked with the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, and asked strangers to shake them, demonstrating that AIDS was not contagious.  Groups like ACT-UP staged aggressive and sometimes violent rallies to draw attention to the plight of AIDS, and to demand earlier access to drug trials.  They had balls.  We have blogs.

AIDS is not a gay problem.  It is not a problem of the global south.  It is a human problem, and rates of new infection in the US- especially among our age group- point to a failure of our generation to heed the warnings of those who lost their lives and their loves.

Make no mistake: AIDS still matters.  Protect yourself.  Protect your partners.  Get tested.

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