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National AIDS Memorial posts Quilt online mirroring COVID crisis

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The 23rd International AIDS Conference made history when it opened its July 6-11 conference this year. Scientists and AIDS activists were forced to deal with the twin pandemics of both AIDS and the novel coronavirus – both of which severely impact the LGBTQ community.

That prompted many to compare President Donald Trump’s failed response to COVID-19 to President Ronald Reagan’s disastrous neglect of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. From June 1981 to Nov. 2018, more than 700,000 people have died from AIDS in America.

In just four months under Trump, 135,279 people have died from COVID-19, though the number from March 2 to July 9, 2020 may actually be under-reported.

The comparison between the twin pandemics was underscored on May 24 when the New York Times filled its entire front page with the names of those lost as the number approached 100,000 COVID dead.

The gasp heard around the world was similar to the tears shed when the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfurled on the Washington Mall in 1993.

The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed on the Washington Mall during the March on Washington in 1993 (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

This year’s international AIDS conference returned to San Francisco, though under very different circumstances than the explosive 1990 conference where ACT UP demanded urgency and accountability. Because of the coronavirus, AIDS/2020:Virtual (AIDS2020.org) was virtually attended by delegates from 175 countries with talks and debates that included ending systemic racism and how COVID-19 has disrupted HIV/AIDS services, especially for LGBTQ people.

“Epidemics run along the fault lines of inequalities and we can and must close the gaps,” UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said at the opening news conference.

Byanyima presented findings from the UNAIDS 2020 Global AIDS Update report, Seizing the Moment: Tackling entrenched inequalities to end epidemics. World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also presented findings of a new WHO survey showing significant disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic in access to HIV treatment. Recently, WHO confirmed that COVID-19 is an airborne virus.

“A survey of 13,562 people in 138 countries conducted from mid-April until mid-May showed that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on the LGBTI+ community worldwide,” according to an AIDS/2020:Virtual press release. “Nearly half the survey participants faced economic difficulty, with many unable to meet their basic needs, skipping meals or reducing meal sizes. Further, nearly half of those who were working expected to lose their employment in the wake of the pandemic, and 13% had already lost their jobs. Of concern, 26% of participants living with HIV reported that they had experienced interrupted or restricted access to refills of antiretroviral treatment.”

Additionally, the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis has forced 1% of survey respondents into sex work with the reduced ability to negotiate safer sex. 

“The findings of this survey are deeply concerning,” Tedros said. “We cannot let the COVID-19 pandemic undo the hard-won gains in the global response to this [HIV/AIDS] disease.” 

Meanwhile, on July 6 at the White House, the same day the AIDS conference opened, Trump spun a Twitter storm about confederate statues, China, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, the “Sanctuary City card,” “angry, violent, criminal mobs taking over certain (Democrat run) cities,” the NASDAQ, the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, opening schools, and spouted more dangerous COVID-19 lies about hydroxychloroquine, the success of US testing and “lowest” mortality rate.

Trump not only failed to acknowledge the International AIDS Conference – he went one cruel step further, as the State Dept. “notified the [UN] Secretary-General … of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, effective on 6 July 2021,” NPR reported. 

Two days later, on July 8, the US reported more than 3 million COVID-19 cases and 134,000 reported deaths, though how many of those deaths are LGBTQ is still unknown as LGBTQ data collection has not been an urgent priority.

The tale of two pandemics did not escape the attention of the San Francisco-based National AIDS Memorial.

Coinciding with the AIDS conference, the non-profit that oversees the AIDS Memorial Quilt launched a new interactive website displaying the entire 48,000 Quilt panels online, as well as a new initiative to collect and share stories about those who died and those impacted over the 40 years of the AIDS pandemic.

The timing is ironically important as State Sen. Scott Weiner and Equality California indicate in pressing for LGBTQ data collection during the COVID crisis – lack of which they explicitly tie to Reagan’s neglect of AIDS.

“We know that COVID-19 is harming the LGBTQ community, but because no data is being collected, we’re hamstrung in making the case to devote attention and resources,” Wiener said before introducing SB 932. “The history of the LGBTQ community is a history of fighting against invisibility. Without data, we quickly become an invisible community and risk being erased. California must lead and collect this critical health data.”

Fearing erasure is precisely why gay activist Cleve Jones started the AIDS Quilt in 1987.

“Within just a few years, almost everyone I knew was dead or dying or caring for someone who was dying. And one of the things that frightened me and led really to the creation of the quilt was my fear that all of these people would just disappear, that their stories would not be known,” Jones said during a Zoom news conference July 6. “And my friends were such remarkable people and I wanted them to be remembered….Now when we look at the complexities of COVID-19, there are just so many parallels — the importance of testing; the significant racial disparities that we’re seeing; the importance of community action; the difficulties, the challenges of persuading people to modify their behavior in ways that can save lives. So, I think it just underscores that this Quilt still has a role to play.”

Jones added:

“The Quilt was never intended to be a passive Memorial. The Quilt was about revealing the lives and the humanity behind the statistics. It was about shaming a government whose inaction had created such a catastrophe. It was a tool for the media to help them understand how the disease was spreading and communities that it was affecting. So, uh, it was never intended to be just a passive thing. And today, as we see people hoping for a vaccine, hoping for a cure, it brings back a lot of very painful memories for me — and I think all of us. This is just bringing back a lot of really, really difficult memories — but those are exactly the memories we need to keep in the front of our minds right now, as we endeavor to face this new challenge.”

Honoring and mourning a person lost to AIDS (Photo by Karen Ocamb, 1993)

John Cunningham, Executive Director of the National AIDS Memorial, underscored the importance of honoring and telling the stories of those lost and inspire a new generation to take action.

“We do have a pandemic we’re in the middle of right now and there are lessons that we can carry forward to bring about solutions,” said Cunningham. “And I think the most profound one is for us to ensure that we stand up and that we take action and become activists as we were back in the day, to hold our elected officials in our government responsible for the inaction that they are taking at the present time for stigmatizing a virus as was done in the early days of the epidemic.”

Turning the actual tactile fabric of The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt into a metaphor, Cunningham said: “That’s part of what’s in the fabric of our nation — challenging the bases of power to bring about profound change in our society.”

(Lead photo via Wikipedia)

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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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