Go ahead: Call me crazy. Everyone else has. But as an HIVer and uncompromising activist, I want you to know how utterly depressed I’ve felt. You see, I’ve spent the past five years fighting Feds and local AIDS experts—who’ve claimed infections are exploding in San Francisco’s gay community. I can hear your eyebrows rising. Why would an HIV activist dispute rising rates? Why would I do anything that could slow the public and private response to this scourge? The answers go right to the heart of why I’m an activist in the first place. And why, as a gay PWA, I would face years of derision to save my community from further exploitation and self-loathing.
In June 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle reported “sub-Saharan” HIV levels in the city’s gay community. Four months later, to far less attention, the city health department’s annual HIV epidemiology report announced: “The relatively stable rate of new HIV infections suggests that current prevention strategies may be effective at holding HIV transmission rates stable.” Hmm. I began collecting subsequent monthly, quarterly and annual epidemiology reports, all available online. It didn’t take a fancy-ass degree to spot the consensus: Infection rates had fallen steadily here. But AIDS-service bureaucrats told me to shut the hell up. That’s because much AIDS-service organization funding is predicated on infection statistics. And these groups often use fear, not responsible prevention education, to terrorize gays into safer sex. AIDS-prevention organizations are often too wedded to the rising infections and worries of the 1980s to recognize when their programs are working.
I think it would kill AIDS experts, not just in San Francisco but at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to say anything encouraging about how people with AIDS have curbed infecting behaviors. As if acknowledging any progress we’ve made in halting transmission would endorse our “unsafe lifestyle.” So instead, they blame people with AIDS for reviving the diminishing epidemic.
As the years passed, I piled the mounting stats onto my blog. Relentlessly, I wrote to the health department. The city’s HIV-prevention planning council groaned whenever I turned up. Conservative PWA pundit Andrew Sullivan supported me, but where were the progressives and Democrats?
Margaret Mead said changing the world requires a handful of people. Well, for me, she should have gone one step further and said it’s often one individual who spurs the handful, because in my heart, I harbored hope that one day three or four people might join me in recognizing falling infections. Never did I doubt the truth would get out, but I feared I wouldn’t live to see it happen.
Then came the morning of July 20, 2005. As my partner and I began our ritual of sharing breakfast and the newspaper, my eyes meandered down the front page and landed on a headline proclaiming that HIV infections were indeed declining.
Oh, the joy cascaded over me as I embraced my boyfriend, who’d endured years of my ranting. The vindication was electrifying. How sweet it was to be alive—and to witness AIDS experts celebrating the responsible sexual behaviors of gay men with AIDS.
Sometimes it’s hard, I think, for the larger public—and even the HIV community—to see activists as human beings, to look beyond the shouting and see vulnerability and real feelings. I surprised myself by finding I have both—in spades.