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AIDS and HIV

Raniyah Copeland, Black AIDS Institute’s new leader

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“Our house is on fire!” Phill Wilson preaches from the pulpit at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Los Angeles, Newsweek reported June 10, 2001. “AIDS is a fire raging in our community and it’s out of control!”

Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute two years earlier, in May 1999, to shout “Our house is on fire!” from every pulpit, stage and rooftop he could find as whites with access to the new three-drug cocktail saw HIV/AIDS turned into a manageable disease while new infection rates in the Black community continued to skyrocket. Though not horse from shouting – and having made extraordinary progress in the almost 20 years serving as President and CEO of Black AIDS Institute (BAI)– Wilson announced his retirement in 2015.

After a concerted search, the BAI Board announced a new director on Dec. 1 during their annual Heroes in the Struggle gala: Raniyah Copeland, 34, a BAI executive staffer was picked out of 20 applicants. “I can’t imagine a better choice to lead the institute into the future. Raniyah is bold, brave, and brilliant,” Wilson said about his successor. “She brings a vigor and vision to the AIDS movement that, given the current political environment, is desperately needed.”

And Copeland does “bring it.”  Backed by degrees in African American Studies from the University of California/Berkeley and a Master of Public Health from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, Copeland started her dream job at BAI combining her two passions—Black people and health—in April of 2008, first as the Training and Capacity Building Coordinator and now as Director of Programs, until Jan. 1 when she assumes the CEO mantle.

“What’s really important to me is Black people,” Copeland tells the Los Angeles Blade when asked why a straight married mother of two would want the job. “It’s really quite horrible that we aren’t all really outraged by what HIV looks like in Black communities. HIV disproportionally impacts same-gender-loving people, trans folks, and Black cis women. I am a cis-hetero-woman—but we are one community and I think that for me, it sends an important message that we are in this together.

“The only way we are really going to end HIV is by our entire community coming together,” Copeland says. “It’s important that we all do our work to end HIV stigma and homophobia and transphobia—and that’s not the work of only some same-gender-loving people. It’s work we all have to do and I’m excited to lead that effort.”

It’s an excitement fueled by the lessons of history. “I was raised by what folks might call two radical Black parents. Growing up, I learned a lot about the history of Black people, the oppression of Black people,” she says. “A monumental book for me was ‘A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story’ by Elaine Brown, who was the highest ranking Black woman in the Black Panther Party. I remember thinking that we as Black people have so much to offer and we’ve been through so much, that it was disgraceful that Black people were disproportionately impacted by so many diseases, whether it was breast cancer, diabetes or HIV.”

In college, Copeland worked on reproductive justice issues but was startled writing a report on HIV in Black communities. “I thought how crazy it was that there was this huge HIV epidemic and the highest amount of attention that I ever remembered was around Magic Johnson,” she says. “But there were all these other communities within the Black community that were disproportionately impacted. It didn’t sit well. It didn’t seem right that HIV wasn’t getting the attention that it deserved—it didn’t seem like people cared very much.”

After college, she was thrilled finding a BAI job posting. “Who I am is being able to be uniquely, unapologetically Black. So finding an organization that focused on that was really exciting for me.” And doing HIV work across the country, “really showed me how the epidemic looks so different in different places.”

Copeland’s work is intersectional. “Mass incarceration is one of many themes that is really so important to ending HIV. We work with Black Lives Matters closely and make sure that HIV is part of the policy agenda and the work that they do,” she says. “For many people, particularly Black people, HIV is not the primary concern. Whether they’re going to get shot by police is a primary concern; whether there’s food on their table is a primary concern; whether they’re able to be in safe relationships free of intimate partner violence is a primary concern.”

So how make HIV important? “Respond to those issues,” she says. “To really respond to HIV, we have to discuss the issues that trans people have: how do we ensure that trans folks are supported? How do we ensure that trans folks have access to quality healthcare that’s culturally humble? And make sure they have opportunities to education and employment?”

Part of the answer is by partnering with different organizations. Which leads to: “how do we provide services that are culturally humble? How do we work with institutions to teach them how to better serve Black communities? These organizations are not HIV-specific but they are critically important working on issues such as employment or legal support or education,” Copeland says. “Those are the services and the relationship and the partnerships that we have to develop and further to ensure that the communities that we serve have the support and resources that are part of being human.”

Copeland is excited about BAI’s new expansion into direct services and partnering with different organizations, such as St. John’s Well Child & Family Center. “We end HIV,” she says, by creating access to quality healthcare that’s “culturally humble” and “by making sure that people have access to the human rights and the dignity that they deserve.”

Being culturally humble, Copeland explains, “is a step above being culturally competent. Cultural competency means you have an understanding of the norms and the culture that people come from. You understand the language that you should and shouldn’t use. You understand medical mistrust that is present in Black communities. You understand the need of trans folks and how they different from cis people. These are all things that you learn. Cultural competency – you understand the culture.

“Being culturally humble means that even though you know you have a competency, that each person is going to present to you differently,” Copeland says. “No culture is monolithic. So when people present to you, you have the competency but you let them guide and you let them determine the kind of services they want. It’s a different type of framework around how you position the relationship. And really understanding that the people we serve, the people that we engage with – that they lead us.”

But 57% of new HIV infections are among 13 to 29-year-old African American youths, according to the CDC,  and reaction to using PrEP,  Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis—using anti-HIV medications to keep HIV negative people from becoming infected – has been mixed.

“Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is when people at very high risk for HIV take HIV medicines daily to lower their chances of getting infected. PrEP can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout your body. It is highly effective for preventing HIV if used as prescribed, but it is much less effective when not taken consistently,” the CDC reports.  “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%. Your risk of getting HIV from sex can be even lower if you combine PrEP with condoms and other prevention methods.”

HIV reporter Emily Land writes: “Only seven percent of participants part of a PrEP demonstration project conducted in three major U.S. cities between 2012 and 2013 were black, and one study found that heightened concerns over potential side effects may pose one significant barrier to PrEP uptake among African American men,” with stigma throwing up another obstacle.

Photo of Raniyah Copeland and Phill Wilson by Lisa Allen 

“Medical mistrust is not just something that is being made up. Black people, people of color have long history of medical abuse by American institutions and individuals,” Oakland says. “The Tuskegee Experiment is the hallmarker for many Black communities—and many Black folks don’t actually know what Tuskegee was – they can’t tell you the details of what it was.

“But what it stands for is the many experiences that we all can tell you – medical mistrust and medical abuses that have happened: forced sterilization of women, forced hysterectomies, the subpar care that many same-gender-loving people receive today, the experience that trans people have on a regular basis and medical abuses they experience. And so there is a long legacy of it and it currently happens today with improper medical care,” Copeland says.

“When we talk about the tools to end the HIV epidemic, many of those tools are based in biomedical science. But for the work we do— you have to first affirm that absolutely—that Black people, that communities of color have been abused by medical systems for eons,” she says. “You can take it all the back during slave trade. And now today that we have many more institutions to ensure that doesn’t happen again, we have to take advantage of these tools that we know are so important and can save lives. PrEP is one of those and there is absolutely a huge amount of mistrust when it comes to PrEP and Black communities.”

Copeland may helping re-frame the approach to empowering people who are living with HIV to know about sexual health but the passion to put out the fire burns just as bright as when Wilson first issued the call.

“He’s been such a huge game-changer,” Copeland says of Wilson, “and I’m very, very honored to come after him.”

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AIDS and HIV

Peacock will premiere HIV documentary on World AIDS Day

Drew, who was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980’s when he was only 23 years old, was not paid for his participation in the trial

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Right to Try (2021) Peacock/NBCUniversal Television and Streaming

NEW YORK — NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock will premiere the documentary short “Right to Try,” which explores one man’s search to cure his HIV, Wednesday on World AIDS Day. 

The film, produced by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer and directed by “The Late Late Show With James Corden” producer Zeberiah Newman, follows HIV survivor and activist Jeffrey Drew’s participation in an experimental vaccine trial. 

“We are thrilled our film ‘Right to Try’ will be seen on Peacock. Though Jeffrey Drew’s heroic journey is singular, his story is universal,” Spencer said in a statement, according to Variety. “This is an important film and with Peacock we have a wonderful partner to bring it to our audience.”

Val Boreland, EVP of content acquisitions at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, added: “It is an honor to share Drew’s story with Peacock users and raise awareness around the important issue of HIV research. We know the impact of this documentary will be far-reaching.”

The documentary shows the side effects that Drew experienced during the early days of the trial. The coronavirus pandemic interrupted the study, as the doctor spearheading the experimental vaccine started working on the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Drew, who was diagnosed with HIV in the late 1980’s when he was only 23 years old, was not paid for his participation in the trial that a major pharmaceutical company did not fund. 

“There are people who are still getting infected and sick and dying,” he told Variety in a June interview. “I would love to see a generation that doesn’t have to think or worry about this anymore.”
“Right to Try” won the Audience Award for Documentary Short last summer at Outfest, an LGBTQ+ film festival in Los Angeles.

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AIDS and HIV

Los Angeles observes World AIDS Day with star-studded concert

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Juan Pablo di Pace will also be performing at the ceremony

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LOS ANGELES — As World AIDS Day is recognized around the globe, Los Angeles will mark the day with a free concert with a star-studded line-up at The Forum hosted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AFA) and a ceremony at The Wall Las Memorias (TWLA) AIDS Monument in Lincoln Park Wednesday.

In a press release, the AFA said Grammy award winners Jennifer Hudson and Christina Aguilera are set to perform in front of a sold-out crowd. Emmy-nominated comedian Randy Rainbow will host the event, which will take place from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

In addition to the entertainment, the AFA will honor Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders with a Lifetime Achievement Award and a special video presentation. The award will be accepted by his wife Jane Sanders.

“This year marks two significant milestones in the decades-long fight against HIV and AIDS: first, for the first recognition by the CDC of the virus that led to what is now known as AIDS (40 years ago, in June 1981), and second, the launch of AHF (35 years ago),” the release reads. 

TWLA’s ceremony will reveal an expanded footprint of the surrounding landscape of the country’s only publicly funded AIDS monument. The monument, created in 2004, will also add over 1,000 names of loved ones lost to AIDS to the 360-plus names already etched into it and unveil new artwork. 

TWLM Founder Richard Zaldivar, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo and County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis are all expected to attend the event, which will start at 6:15 p.m. at 3600 N. Mission Road. According to NBC 4 Los Angeles, organizers also hope Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti will be in attendance. 

Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Juan Pablo di Pace will also be performing at the ceremony. 

World AIDS Day is observed every December 1 to raise awareness about AIDS and honor the people who have died of the disease. This year’s theme is “End inequities. End AIDS and End Pandemics.”

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AIDS and HIV

National Black Justice Coalition Partners with Twitter for World AIDS Day

Conversations about HIV prevention, treatment, and support on World AIDS Day must center on the Black community.

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Graphic courtesy of the National Black Justice Coalition

WASHINGTON n- On December 1, 2021, World AIDS Day, the National Black Justice Coalition is partnering with Twitter’s #CampaignsForChange and #TwitterIgnite on a campaign to educate people about HIV/AIDS and the importance of their involvement in the fight to end the epidemic. The campaign will center around a safe space on Twitter that encourages the use of the #MyFirstHIVTweet hashtag and urges people to talk about HIV and sexual wellness. ‘

World AIDS Day (WAD) is an opportunity to remember those who have passed due to an AIDS-related illness, support those currently living with HIV, and unite in the fight to end HIV/AIDS worldwide. 

An estimated 37.7 million people globally were living with HIV at the end of 2020, and since the epidemic began in the 1980s, 36.3 million people have died from an AIDS-related illness. 

In the U.S., the Black community is disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic, with gay, bisexual, and same-gender loving men and Black women being the most affected. In 2018, Black people comprised 42% (16,002) of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses, and Black  same-gender loving, gay, and bisexual men made up 26% (9,712) of the new diagnoses. In 2016, Black women accounted for 6 in 10 new HIV diagnoses among women. 

“Conversations about HIV prevention, treatment, and support on World AIDS Day must center on the Black community.  We must reduce stigma in our community, including by having critically important but sometimes challenging conversations about HIV/AIDS,” explained David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.

“There are many people who are engaged in activism around the LGBTQ+ community and racial issues but are notably absent from the conversation around HIV. This is because the epidemic is not visible for them and because they lack accurate information on HIV. My hope is this safe space encourages people to send what will not be their last HIV/Tweet and to consider using NBJC to help find a testing location or to request an at-home testing kit. Too many people are still dying as a result of HIV/AIDS and this does not have to be our reality.” 

NBJC has created this Words Matter HIV Toolkit to support asset-based conversations about holistic health and wellness.  

For more information on how HIV/AIDS impacts the Black community and how to engage during World AIDS Day and beyond, view NBJC’s World AIDS Day Toolkit.  Get tested and know your status. Doctors recommend testing every three to six months.  

You can find a testing site near you at https://gettested.cdc.gov/ or if you are 17 years or older and live in the U.S., order a FREE at-home HIV test kit via the Have Good Sex program. 

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