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Strong at the broken places

AIDS cut down almost everyone from the poorest to the richest gay man



Screenshot of CBS News coverage of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic

Essay on AIDS for World AIDS Day

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Farewell to Arms, a novel about love, death and grief during World War 1. It sounds like the war people confronting COVID are dealing with now. It sounds like the war gays first faced fighting AIDS.  

America is at war with herself, again. It’s as if monarch-loving Tory cult loyalists and Confederate White Supremacists handed down their bigoted traditions to anxious racists who devised and extended an existential Southern Strategy to keep minorities subservient. Even the lowest of the low white man could feel superior to any Black, Brown or Asian individual, tribe or country of origin. And men were inherently superior to women, because the Bible said so. LGBTQ people didn’t exist and if one emerged, they were arrested as criminals, wantonly beaten as perverts who deserved it, lobotomized to be cured, or murdered and disposed of with no need for justification.

But unlike other minorities, LGBTQ people were often at war within themselves. However, many found courage when they chose authenticity, seeking each other out while risking arrest, hate and death to love and create community. The secretive Mattachine Society burst into the open through the Stonewall Rebellion, which flourished during the anti-Vietnam War and Liberation movements of the late 60s and early 70s. San Francisco-based Harvey Milk and other gays in politics started demanding respected representation. But Milk was assassinated, disco died and religious zealots won over by Florida Orange Juice flak Anita Bryant and her partner in the national anti-gay evangelical crusade, Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, seduced enough legacy bigots to put biased Hollywood B actor Ronald Reagan in the White House.

So America didn’t care when gays started dying of AIDS. It was God’s punishment for homosexuality. The Bible said so: “If any man lie with a man as with a woman, both have committed an abomination, let them be put to death: their blood be upon them.” Leviticus 20:13.

But there were Tories and Confederates in the gay community, too. The rich and elite didn’t really feel the sting of racism or sexism or homophobia unless they were outed and pursued and demeaned and couldn’t buy their way out of a predicament.

AIDS helped changed that. In the beginning, AIDS cut down almost everyone from the poorest to the richest gay man oozing white privilege. The rich man may have had greater access to healthcare in the Betty Ford wing of Cedars Sinai Hospital while the poorest languished in the dank hallways of LA County & USC Medical Center — but escaping death before 1996 was a rare exception.  

Many of us lost many friends. The grief was constant and unbearable. The grief was so unbearable, it sometimes broke through the numbness of producing or attending memorials twice, sometimes three times a week. The numbness was so crazy, mourners would laugh at macabre jokes – gallows humors – and flirt and flirt and flirt with each other as if this moment was the only moment that mattered. It’s an old instinctive mythology – Eros and Thanatos rolling in the sheets.

AIDS survivors had a quiet kinship, much like veterans nod with discreet understanding after spotting insignias or tattoos or 12 Steppers let slip a program phrase like “Let go, let God.” There was racial and societal crossover there. And in the rooms, it was genuine.

But then, after the meeting, survivors and hoping-to-survive people with AIDS separated into their closeted lives or divided LGBTQ communities. Sometimes, if they met in the outside world, a smile, a warm glance, a quick hug would convey a whole secret world of love and well-wishes. Or if the smile was misconstrued, “oppression sickness” – as Morris Kight used to call it – would ensue. Even as ACT UP and Queer Nation made their mark, the shame-infused closet dominated. People were afraid to come out lest they be abandoned by their friends and family – which happened too often with the double stigmas of homosexuality and AIDS. Everything was simultaneously heightened and numbing.

But every now and then there were moments when the whole world seemed brilliantly clear and people would come together in love and support and soul-exploding celebration. Nov. 18, 1992 was just such a night.

The Los Angeles Times coverage of Project Aids LA fundraiser November 1992 (Photo via collection of Karen Ocamb)

For a decade since its founding in Oct. 1982, AIDS Project Los Angeles had been fighting to save lives of people impacted by HIV/AIDS. Willfully taking the advice of anti-gay evangelical and rabid right-wing advisors, President Ronald Reagan ignored the cries of the gay community and even members of his own Centers for Disease Control who warned that the communicable virus would cause an unrelenting epidemic, which it did. By 1992, when Democratic Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton defeated Republican President Herbert Walker Bush, AIDS had become the leading cause of death in America for men ages 25-44.  

APLA had its ups and downs, several times facing financial collapse. But fundraisers like the annual Commitment to Life ceremony brought out Hollywood A-listers for the money and offered people with AIDS an opportunity to enjoy a lavish show they might not otherwise get to see.

That night, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 1992, the Universal Amphitheatre was packed and throbbing with excitement as APLA honored mega-star and gay obsession Barbra Streisand and music and movie mogul David Geffen, who had given $1 million to APLA that year. Additionally, 6,500 people got to celebrate Bill Clinton’s victory. The lobby of the Amphitheatre displayed 80 AIDS Quilts as a reminder to the non-directly impacted that 160,000 Americans had died. Everyone dared to hope that an AIDS cure and vaccine was right around the corner.

This CTL fundraiser was chaired by former Fox Inc. Chair Barry Diller and Creative Artists Agency President Ron Meyer with the show itself conceived by producer Bernie Taupin, staged by Vincent Paterson, emceed by Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty with David Foster as music director. APLA chair Steve Tisch read a telegram from Clinton before a slew of stars sang duets and songs from gay composers Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story.” Picture this: “America” done by Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle and Sheila E; Elton John prancing around singing “I Feel Pretty;” Streisand and Johnny Mathis singing “One Hand, One Heart” and Streisand closing the show with “Somewhere.” The evening netted $3.3 million.

The entertainment didn’t produce the biggest jaw-dropping moments, however. Those came from Streisand and Geffen.

“I will never forgive my fellow actor, Ronald Reagan, for the genocidal denial of the illness’s existence; for his refusal to even utter the word ‘AIDS’ for seven years and for blocking adequate funding,” said Streisand, whose gay son Jason was outted in 1991. “Then came George Bush, once the moderate, who in a Faustian bargain, allied himself with the same primitive, gay-bashing immoral minority….I keep pinching myself. Finally, a President who is committed to finding a cure for AIDS.” She also called for a boycott of Colorado for passing Amendment 2, an initiative that eliminated protections and equal rights for gays and lesbians. The media talked about that for days.

But perhaps the most poignant and heart-enhancing moment came when a nervous David Geffen took the stage and referred to stacks of 341 Rolodex cards placed on top of a stool. He had expected to test HIV positive after his first friend died in 1985 but he was lucky. “When the first person I knew died, I couldn’t bring myself to throw his Rolodex card away, so I saved it. I now have a rubber band around three hundred forty-one cards,” Geffen said, referring to his friend Michael Bennett, director of “The Chorus Line,” which Geffen financed. The Jim Parsons/Tommy Boatwright scene in the film “The Normal Heart” is based on that Geffen practice.

Geffen spoke about the need to “nurture and protect young gays who look up to us for hope that they, too, can lead a life uninhibited by fear and guilt and shame.”

And then the bombshell that shook the rafters with cheers: “As a gay man, I’ve come a long way to be here tonight.” He wasn’t just an elite mogul anymore. He shared their heart – the gay men with KS lesions and medical humpbacks and shriveled skin hanging off a skeleton. He was hugging them now from afar.

“And in different places and by different paths, we’ve all come a long way,” Geffen said. “And yet there is an equally long way to go. If I have learned anything, I have learned this – that we must walk this path together.”

160,000 Americans died from AIDS in the decade between 1982 and 1992. But in the face of intentional government neglect and obfuscation, societal cruelty, and internalized shame, gay people forged bonds with their brothers and sisters and created a community that survivors today recognize with a smile and a tear.

As of Nov. 23, COVID-19 has killed more than 250,000 people since last February.  And just as gays rejoiced when Clinton was elected, now there are huge expectations for Joe Biden to end the coronavirus pandemic after Donald Trump unforgivable failure. There are so many similarities between our experience then and the grief of COVID survivors today. Where is the communal sharing of grief, the agony of losing family, friends and a “normal” life that only COVID survivors understand? Perhaps, in some way, AIDS survivors can be of help. We are stronger now in many broken places.

Karen Ocamb is an award winning LGBTQ media journalist and the former News Editor of the Los Angeles Blade. She is currently writing a book on friends who died of AIDS.  

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HBCUs receive millions to address HIV inequalities in South

“We believe that education and advocacy will enable us to identify new strategies that will make an impact on infection rates”



Photo courtesy of Morehouse College/Facebook Chase Brathwaite; Class of' 24, a rising junior sociology major in gender & families pre-med

FOSTER CITY, Calif. – Two Southern historically Black colleges (HBCUs) will receive millions of dollars from biopharma giant Gilead Sciences Inc. to address the HIV epidemic in the region, which has become the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.

The Foster City, Calif.-based company will announce Wednesday $4.5 million for programs at Morehouse College in Atlanta and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to address structural barriers Black people face in getting HIV testing, treatment and ongoing care, officials told the Los Angeles Blade. Gilead is a leader in HIV treatments. 

The South has become the epicenter for HIV in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also “lags behind in providing quality HIV prevention services and care,” the agency said. 

Though cases have dropped in recent years, the region continues to have the country’s highest rate of new HIV diagnoses – sitting at 15.2 per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the CDC. Most cases occur in Black men who have sex with men

The Gilead donations will go toward addressing HIV inequities and closing gaps in care in Atlanta, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., officials said. Specifically, according to the announcement, the $4.5 million will help the HBCUs: 

  • Increase access and utilization of culturally competent healthcare to Black people impacted by the HIV epidemic. 
  • Gain insight into the disruption of the healthcare delivery system due to COVID-19 in the Black community and realigning HIV services in the current climate.
  • Provide training focused on culturally competent HIV care. 
  • Engage early with experienced clinicians practicing in Black communities in the three cities.

The Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine will receive $2.5 million and the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education at Xavier University of Louisiana’s College of Pharmacy will get $2 million over three, a Gilead official said. The company said there is a potential to continue funding and expanding the project based on the outcomes.

Rashad Burgess, vice president of advancing health and Black equity at Gilead, said the drugmaker landed on the two schools because the two “have been leading efforts ensuring positive health outcomes and advancing health equity for Black communities in the U.S. South, across the nation and around the globe.”

“Both schools also have a track record of results,” he said. 

Xavier, a Catholic institution, and Morehouse, a men’s school, have made recent strides with the LGBTQ community. Last year, Xavier hosted its first ever Pride week, which students heralded as a “big deal.” In 2019, Morehouse said it would open admissions to transgender men. (The school still bans anyone who identifies as a woman from enrolling.)

Jareese Stroud, project director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute in the Morehouse School of Medicine, said strategic partnerships like Gilead’s “are critical to improving health outcomes among Black Americans.” 

In a statement to the Blade, Kathleen Kennedy, dean of the Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy, added: “We believe that education and advocacy will enable us to identify new strategies that will make an impact on infection rates and the overall health care of patients living with HIV and AIDS.”

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HIV speeds up body’s aging within three years after initial infection

Living with HIV infection is associated with early onset of aging-related chronic conditions, sometimes described as accelerated aging



An immune cell infected with HIV (Photo Credit: National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID))

LOS ANGELES – A study published by researchers from the division of hematology and oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA at the end of June revealed that HIV has an “early and substantial” impact on aging in infected people, accelerating biological changes in the body associated with normal aging within just two to three years of infection.

“Our work demonstrates that even in the early months and years of living with HIV, the virus has already set into motion an accelerated aging process at the DNA level,” said lead author Elizabeth Crabb Breen, a professor emerita at UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “This emphasizes the critical importance of early HIV diagnosis and an awareness of aging-related problems, as well as the value of preventing HIV infection in the first place.”

According to the results of the study published in the Cell Press open source journal iScience, the findings suggest that new HIV infection may rapidly cut nearly five years off an individual’s life span relative to an uninfected person.

The study’s authors noted that despite a significant increase in life expectancy because of treatment regimes now available to patients, there is mounting evidence that living long-term with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and antiretroviral therapy, even when clinically well-controlled, is associated with an earlier than expected onset of chronic conditions such as heart and kidney disease, frailty, and neurocognitive difficulties.

The research team analyzed stored blood samples from 102 men collected six months or less before they became infected with HIV and again two to three years after infection. They compared these with matching samples from 102 non-infected men of the same age taken over the same time period.

The UCLA team said that this study is the first to match infected and non-infected people in this way. All the men were participants in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, an ongoing nationwide study initiated in 1984.

“Our access to rare, well-characterized samples allowed us to design this study in a way that leaves little doubt about the role of HIV in eliciting biological signatures of early aging,” said senior author Beth Jamieson, a professor in the division of hematology and oncology at the Geffen School. “Our long-term goal is to determine whether we can use any of these signatures to predict whether an individual is at increased risk for specific aging-related disease outcomes, thus exposing new targets for intervention therapeutics.”

The researchers noted some limitations to the study. It included only men, so results may not be applicable to women. In addition, the number of non-white participants was small, and the sample size was insufficient to take into consideration later effects of highly active antiretroviral treatment or to predict clinical outcomes.

There is still no consensus on what constitutes normal aging or how to define it, the researchers wrote.

The full study is available here: (Link)

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U.S. announces more funding for HIV/AIDS fight in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama



Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

PANAMA CITY — First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ+ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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