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AIDS and HIV

‘Philadelphia,’ AIDS and LGBT ally Tom Hanks

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To many in the LGBT community who survived the ravaging years of the AIDS crisis, the death of former President George HW Bush on the eve of World AIDS Day was a profound PTSD trigger. Like a quick nod of a genie’s head, the agony of the government’s neglect during the Reagan/Bush years in the 1980s came rushing back. And while Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Ryan White Care Act, thousands had died, there was no cure and no end in sight for more carnage, brought on by stigma as much as the disease.

What’s sometimes overlooked in the overwhelming grief as we remember our lost loved ones are the friends and allies who showed up to help, to care, to just stand with us in love and defiance. One such ally was actor Tom Hanks, best known in the early 1990s for his comedic performances in “Splash,” “Big,” and “Turner & Hooch.” Taking on the role of a gay man dying of AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film “Philadelphia” was a risk to his popularity and career.

Dec. 14 marks the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles premier of “Philadelphia,” which went on to win Hanks his first Academy Award, as well as an Oscar for Bruce Springsteen’s haunting song “Streets of Philadelphia.” Some criticized the film for being too milquetoast mainstream—but that was the point. Who would pay $7 to see an AIDS movie unless it was a good, relatable story with Hollywood stars? Through Hanks, straight people got to “know” a gay person and through Denzel Washington, they took the journey from homophobic ambulance-chaser to compassionate attorney for gay/PWA civil rights.

The LA premier was a benefit for AIDS Project Los Angeles, which netted $250,000 APLA Chair Steve Tisch told the LA Times. But it did more than that. About two years after actor Brad Davis died of AIDS and left a scathing letter about Hollywood homophobia tied to insurance issues over hiring HIV-positive actors, Demme hired more than 50 HIV-positive actors, including the late Ron Vawter who played one of the partners in the law firm that fires Hanks’ character.

“Philadelphia” also brought attention to the real 1987 lawsuit upon which it was partly based and Hanks’ remarkable Oscar acceptance speech— in which he noted “that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels”—unintentionally outed his gay drama teacher and spawned the 1997 movie “In & Out,” in which straight actors Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck share an onscreen kiss.

“Philadelphia” director Jonathan Demme with actors Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

I covered the LA premier of “Philadelphia” and had my own heart-warming moment. I was one of AIDS activist Michael Callen’s care providers and Michael and The Flirtations made a cameo appearance singing “Mr. Sandman” in the film. He was too sick to attend the APLA event but asked me to convey his thanks to Tom Hanks. He was sorry to hear that Michael had taken a turn for the worse but told me to tell him thanks back. Hanks said he listened to Michael’s “Purple Heart” album in his trailer while getting into character. Michael was overjoyed to hear that. Michael died 13 days after the APLA benefit premier of “Philadelphia.”

During the APLA event, gay actor David Drake came up to us while I was interviewing Hanks. Drake, who was also in the movie, was well-known for his powerful AIDS play “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.” We were joking around and I asked them to play out that scenario, which they did to everyone’s amusement.

“I knew from the get-go being cast in “Philadelphia” was a very special kind of honor, more so than any other big-budget Hollywood film at the time,” David told me via email. Jonathan Demme “was committed to turning his formidable creativity and star power to telling the story of an gay man with AIDS in his quest to save his life was groundbreaking for mainstream culture.

“And to enlist Tom Hanks to star was major,” David continues. “I was on and off filming for over 3 months, which was shot in Philadelphia, and stepping on set that first day with Tom was daunting. But he immediately made me feel right at home when we met in the makeup trailer, saying, ‘So you’re the guy kissing Larry Kramer! I’ve been reading a lot about you, so happy we’re working together on this.’

Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” (photo via IMB)

“I was dazzled by his humility and impressed at his genuine interest in what was going on in the AIDS activist community,” David says. “Plus, he was just so easy-going and available to engaging in conversation with. No diva fits, no tension, and Tom’s commitment—losing 30-some pounds for the role—was astonishing. As was his performance in take after take.”

“A once-in-a-lifetime encounter: I also remember having a lovely conversation in the hospital waiting room (on set) about the secret restaurants of San Francisco with Joanne Woodward  (who was knitting) and Karen Finley (who was dressed in doctor whites),” David says.

“When the movie wrapped that spring of 1993,” David remembers, “Tom sent everyone in the cast and company wristwatches with the “Philadelphia” logo under the glass of the clock—and with a personally signed note of thanks. The ‘nicest guy in Hollywood?’ You betcha.”

So when injustice seems to pour down like torrents from hell, remember there are some angel-allies who still walk the streets of Los Angeles.

 

 

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AIDS and HIV

Governor Newsom signs HIV & Aging Act authored by Sen. John Laird

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

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Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of California

SACRAMENTO – On Friday Governor Gavin Newsom announced the signing of Senate Bill 258, the HIV & Aging Act, authored by Senator John Laird (D – Santa Cruz). Senate Bill 258 will ensure HIV+ seniors are included in the definition of “greatest social need”.

“When I was the Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director in the 1980’s, it was our dream to have people living with HIV live into old age,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to age. Governor Newsom signing the HIV & Aging Act is a historic moment for the LGBTQ community, and all those who have been affected by the HIV crisis.”

With the recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of HIV positive older people is increasing. According to a 2018 California HIV Surveillance Report published by the California Department of Public Health, over half of the people living with the virus in California are now aged 50 years or older. This same report shows that 15 percent of newly diagnosed patients were age 50 and older in that same year.

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Sen. John Laird speaking at PRIDE with the LGBTQ Legislative Caucus June 2021 (Blade File Photo)

Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin notes, “After surviving the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, many Californians living with HIV are now over the age of 50, but in dire need of support. Thanks to Governor Newsom, Senator Laird and HIV advocates, the Golden State will now make sure that our elders living with HIV have access to food assistance, job training, transportation or any other vital services. We applaud Governor Gavin Newsom for signing the HIV & Aging Act into law, making California just the second state to ensure older Californians living with HIV don’t just continue to survive, but thrive.”

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago and now a majority of people with HIV in California are over 50 years old. Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are not yet prepared to address the unique needs of this population,” APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson said adding; “Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. We thank Senator Laird for his leadership on this historic bill to ensure that people aging with HIV have the resources and support they need to thrive and age with dignity.”

“We must ensure that LGBTQ seniors have the affirming care and support so they can age in peace with dignity,” stated Laird. “It’s incumbent upon us to not force individuals back into the closet for them to access adequate care. Once again, I’d like to applaud the Governor for his continued support of the LBGTQ community and to my colleagues for making this a priority bill.”

The HIV & Aging Act received unanimous bipartisan support through both chambers of the Legislature and is a legislative priority for the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.

Senate Bill 258 will go into effect January 1, 2022.

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AIDS and HIV

HIV & Aging Act sails through legislature; awaits Newsom’s signature

“When I was Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director, it was our dream to have people living with HIV age into the senior category.”

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California State Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) (Photo courtesy of the Senate of State of California)

SACRAMENTO —  The California Assembly passed SB 258, the HIV and Aging Act, by Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz), Thursday sending the bill to Governor Newsom for signature. The bill advanced from the Assembly consent calendar and received no “no” votes in either chamber.

Pending Governor Newsom’s final approval, California will become only the second state — after Illinois in 2019 — to designate older adults living with HIV as a population of “greatest social need.”

“When I was Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director, it was our dream to have people living with HIV age into the senior category,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to grow old. While the drug cocktail transformed the fight against HIV, and there are more HIV positive seniors than ever before, older people living with HIV face a number of behavioral health challenges in addition to physical illnesses. By easing the burden of connecting this vulnerable population to supportive aging services and programs, this bill provides another life line to assist this uniquely disadvantaged group.

“I would like to express my utmost thanks to the sponsors of SB 258 for their steadfast partnership and the large coalition of supporters who highlighted the critical need for historic recognition and support of those living with HIV.”

With recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV who take antiretroviral therapy can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of older people living with HIV is increasing and over half of people living with HIV in California are now aged 50 years or older. However, older people with HIV continue to face unique challenges and barriers in health and well-being. A 2020 report by SAGE’s HIV and Aging Policy Action Coalition (HAPAC) identified that older people with HIV are more likely than their HIV-negative counterparts to have multiple comorbidities, including certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, fractures, and hepatitis C. Older people with HIV also face a number of behavioral health challenges, including rates of depression up to five times greater than their HIV-negative peers and greater levels of stigma, social isolation and loneliness.

“As a person living with HIV since 1983, I thank the Assembly for passing SB 258 – the HIV & Aging Act – recognizing older adults with HIV face unique and profound challenges as a population of ‘greatest social need.’” said Tez Anderson, Executive Director of Let’s Kick ASS-AIDS Survivor Syndrome. “For too long, survivors of the AIDS pandemic have been overlooked and forgotten. None of us imagined aging, but over half of all Californians living with HIV are aging and urgently in need of social services and programs which address our physical and mental health. I urge Governor Newsom to sign the bill and give us hope for a better quality of life.”

The HIV & Aging Act updates the Welfare and Institutions Code to ensure older people living with HIV — who are likely to turn to government and community-based services due to multiple comorbidities, behavioral and mental health issues and limited social support — have access to the programs and services administered through the California Department of Aging. The legislation is co-authored by Senators Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblymembers Sabrina Cervantes (D-Corona), Alex Lee (D-San Jose), Evan Low (D-Campbell) and Chris Ward (D-San Diego) and co-sponsored by APLA Health, Equality California, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and SAGE.

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago,” said APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson. “Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are ill-equipped to address the unique needs of this population. Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They experience significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety and other comorbidities. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. APLA Health urges Governor Newsom to sign SB 258 into law to ensure that California’s aging network is prepared to support the state’s rapidly growing population of people aging with HIV.”

“As the number of older people living with HIV continues to increase, so should our state’s commitment to support this resilient population,” said Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin. “We are thrilled that SB 258 received overwhelming, bipartisan support in the California legislature, and we look forward to pro-equality champion Governor Newsom signing this timely bill into law. Older Californians living with HIV deserve to have the resources and support they need to thrive with dignity.”

“SAGE applauds California State Senator John Laird and his colleagues for taking action in support of LGBT elders and people living with HIV,” said SAGE Director of Advocacy Aaron Tax. “This legislation would update the Older Americans Act in California, which funds critical programs like Meals-on-Wheels, to designate older people living with HIV as a target population. As older people living with HIV continue to face challenges in getting the aging services and supports that they need, it’s time for the law to catch up with the aging of the epidemic. Everyone should have access to the aging services and supports that they need, regardless of their identity or HIV status. This legislation will bring us closer to that reality.”

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AIDS and HIV

UCLA Fielding School awarded $5.2 million in grants for HIV prevention

The grants will study the use of a variety of techniques – personalized, daily text message reminders; and individual and group counseling

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UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Photo Credit: UCLA

LOS ANGELES – A team of researchers co-led by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health epidemiology professor Dr. Matthew Mimiaga has received more than $5.2 million in grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop and test interventions in the U.S. and Brazil.

The projects, funded by three separate NIH grants, all have the goal of reducing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through the use of antiretroviral medications for HIV primary (PrEP) and secondary (ART) prevention among sexual and gender minority groups.

“Whether used as PrEP for HIV negative individuals or as ART treatment as prevention for those living with HIV, antiretroviral medications are highly effective at reducing HIV acquisition and transmission, but its efficacy is highly dependent on uptake and excellent adherence,” said Mimiaga, director of the UCLA Center for LGBTQ Advocacy, Research & Health. “However, sexual and gender minority groups face specific barriers to PrEP and ART access, uptake, adherence, and retention in care. Because of this, we are testing interventions that are culturally-tailored to address the lived realities and barriers among these vulnerable groups.”

The grants, announced by the NIH this month, will study the use of a variety of techniques – personalized, daily text message reminders; video vignettes; peer navigation; and individual and group counseling – to facilitate access and adherence to antiretroviral medications among those who would benefit the most from its use. These grants will be implemented in Los Angeles County; Providence, RI; Boston, MA; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This will give the researchers a wide variety of data on how these approaches work for different populations, ranging from LGBTQ adolescents, ages 15-24, to transgender women, and men who engage in transactional sex with other men. Dr. Katie Biello, a Brown University behavioral and social sciences and epidemiology professor, will co-lead this work with Mimiaga.

“Our goal is to develop HIV prevention interventions that are highly scalable and sustainable in the real world,” Biello said. “As such, this work takes into account the future of PrEP and ART access, while simultaneously addressing the barriers surrounding access, aiding in navigating linkage to PrEP and ART care programs, and reducing barriers to, and building skills to support, medication adherence.”

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