December 1st is World AIDS Day, a time to recognize those who live with HIV, to honor those who’ve died, and to come together in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This year’s theme is “Getting to Zero: Zero New HIV Infections. Zero Discrimination and Zero AIDS Related Deaths.”
This past Tuesday, as a prelude to this internationally-recognized day, seven naked AIDS activists emblazoned with such logos as “AIDS Cuts Kill” stood their ground in the Capital office of Speaker John Boehner, chanting: “End AIDS with the Robin Hood tax, no more budget cuts on our back.” And: “Budget cuts are really rude, that’s why we have to be so lewd.”
Their action and the response it generated highlighted a few essential truths in the fight against AIDS. First, services for people living with and at-risk of HIV/AIDS remain critical to individual health, and to the control of the disease. Second, AIDS programming is as vulnerable now as it ever was to the prospect of funding losses. And third, deep-seated homophobia, sexism, and ignorance, as revealed in much of the online reaction to the activism, perpetuate HIV stigma and continue to hamper this fight.
Funding for people living with HIVand AIDS remains critical. The HIV epidemic doesn’t generate much mainstream media attention these days (except when nudity is involved), and it’s not uncommon for even well-read Americans to think that HIV is a problem principally affecting those in the Southern Hemisphere. When people stopped dying in droves from HIV, our national attention was diverted from the on-going challenges of the disease. But while the nation’s eye is trained elsewhere, HIV in this country shows no sign of relenting. The HIV infection rate for heterosexual African American women in Washington D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods nearly doubled between 2008 and 2010, from an already alarming 6.3 percent to an unfathomable 12.1 percent. And just this week the CDC announced that in 2010 there were 47,500 new HIV infections, of which 12,200 (25.7 percent) were among young people. Perhaps more startling, nearly 60 percent of these HIV-positive youth are unaware of their status. Our most vulnerable communities remain in HIV’s stranglehold, and prevention programming and support services, as well as specialized medical care and treatment programs remain essential to our ability to out-maneuver the epidemic.
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AIDS programming is vulnerable. The so-called fiscal cliff is looming large for constituents of every stripe as all non-discretionary funding is on the chopping block. And people living with HIV and their advocates are looking nervously at the spectrum of services and programming that could be lost at the bargaining table. Medication. Housing. Food. Case management. Prevention. These and more hang in the balance, and as a result so do the lives of so many individuals and families affected by HIV.
Stigma still stands in the way. HIV stigma has always been intimately connected with other forms of discrimination: homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and racism. And each of these, whether they manifest as vitriol or apathy, remain as stumbling blocks on the road to Zero. Online comments to the various articles reporting on the nude demonstration in Boehner’s office demonstrated a toxic dose of fraternity-style appraisals of the naked female body alongside plenty of hateful anti-gay rhetoric.
But the right’s ongoing zeal to demonize AIDS activists shouldn’t bury the larger point: ACT-UP style activism is still required to get mainstream media to pay attention to the on-going fight against HIV in this country. As Jennifer Flynn, one of those arrested noted, the “naked truth” is that budget cuts are devastating to people living with HIV/AIDS. In recent years HIV science and medicine have taken monumental leaps forward, but Hillary Clinton’s now oft-repeated goal of an AIDS-free generation will remain unattainable without on-going fiscal support for critical HIV/AIDS programs. Now is not the time to abandon the struggle.