Remembering those taken by HIV/AIDS

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by Josh Barnes
Contributer

A decade has passed since I last saw you-Mary, Glenn, Miss Ruby, Isaac, and all; a decade since you died. I remember what it was like with each of you and my friends who fought with me. We used to sit and talk about a cure. We dreamed about world leaders rallying together with resources to stop the virus. We talked about what it would be like if other people weren’t cruel; we got quiet whenever someone said that before long everyone would know someone with AIDS. We went to funerals together and we yelled at rallies. We sang at candlelight vigils and we dreamed about the future without AIDS.

It’s been ten years, Glenn, and guys like you and I are still getting infected. In fact gay men in the U.S. make up about 40 percent of AIDS cases each year. The younger guys think that they can’t get it. Most of my friends say that they don’t know anyone with AIDS; they’ve never known anyone with AIDS. HIV medications keep people healthier and living longer now (I wish we had had these meds for you and all the others then) and some people seem to think that taking all those pills is worth taking the chance of unprotected sex. Instead of meeting guys the way you said you did, many of us cruise the Internet and find our hook ups there. Guys know what HIV is and some say they get tested, but a lot of people think that AIDS is not a big deal. This year, Glenn, I found out about six guys between the ages of 18-32 who are now HIV-infected; I learned about all of them in a span of two weeks!

Mary, you were my first real teacher and the first women I met with AIDS. You were the first to die in my arms when I was just 18. Now African-American women account for almost 70 percent of all women living with HIV/AIDS in the United States ! We used to think it was only women like you who used needles who would ever really get it but we’ve seen huge increases in the numbers of women who have unprotected sex who are now HIV-infected. We are seeing numbers rise, Mary, and budgets are being cut. Here in Tennessee , major budget cuts to a publicly funded medical insurance program are going to drop hundreds of people with HIV/AIDS, access to life-saving medications will be difficult. Sometimes I wonder if our obstacles are sweeping away our progress?

Miss Ruby, the transgendered community isn’t running the world the way you joked it would, the way you teased it should. Unfortunately our government is slow to give anyone in the GLBT community equal rights and even further behind in helping us document our community’s health care disparities. There is evidence of people in the transgendered community taking greater risks with improper medical procedures to get breasts. There is also increased drug and alcohol abuse with decreased use of condoms. If you were here you’d have a smart-ass comment to make me laugh or at least to try to get me to stop being so cynical. You were infected in jail over ten years ago, Ruby, and our prison systems still won’t allow us to freely distribute condoms to inmates!

AIDS is the number one killer of African-American men, Isaac. Now people who are Black or Latino account for over 62 percent of all people living with HIV/AIDS. One in three African-Americans living with AIDS is a man who has sex with men. But you told us wild stories of the female commercial sex workers who gave you the virus. There are more service organizations now that serve the African-American community than there were when I knew you. Churches are slowly taking note of the epidemic and trying to reach out to the Black community. There is a lot of good work being done, but there is so much more still to do.

Millions of people around the world have died of AIDS since the virus first appeared over 20 years ago. Between four and five million people are infected worldwide each year! In the United States about 40,000 people are infected with HIV annually. The numbers have increased since I last saw you all. We know so much more now than what we did ten years ago. Our treatment is keeping people healthier, longer. Our community education and prevention programs are reaching out and changing some of the stigma around the virus, its different now than it was then.

Research is pulling together ideas and resources that may give the world better options of prevention like chemical condoms and even a vaccine. Researchers and AIDS service organizations need people to join us, to volunteer, to fight, to educate. What will it take to cause the GLBT community and other communities to help end AIDS?

This year on World AIDS Day 2005, ten years after I buried so many of my teachers, my friends, I remember where we’ve been in the struggle, where we are now in the fight. I’m not going to light a candle for you this year in remembrance of your deaths; the candles I light will be a reminder of your life. I’m going to keep my promise to each of you to use my life to tell others the lessons you taught me a decade ago. Remember when we used to dream of a world without AIDS? I still do.

Josh Barnes is a Community Educator and Community Advisory Board Liaison with the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Research Program and the Vanderbilt-Meharry Center For AIDS Research. Find out more at www.hivvaccineresearch.com.