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From a Leather Jacket to a Suit Jacket: Still an HIV Activist

By Jeff Graham

April 20, 2012

Jeff Graham

"I'm so tired of talking about AIDS, let's make sure we talk about other issues this year." Those words were uttered by a young gay rights activist while discussing programming for the University of Texas' annual gay and lesbian awareness week -- in 1989.  I was that activist and I was totally unprepared for the karma that this sentiment would unleash. In 1989 I thought I had had my fill of AIDS activism.  I had already been talking about AIDS to my fellow students in support groups and classroom lectures for five years and was ready for a change.

The next week I went to my first organizing meeting for the Austin chapter of ACT UP and everything began to change.

Within the year I had dropped out of graduate school, moved to Atlanta and committed my first act of civil disobedience.  I was committed to devoting all my energies to fighting the epidemic that was claiming the lives of too many of my friends.  I had a very hard-line attitude towards activism: If you weren't with us in the streets, you weren't really an activist!

Twenty years and a dozen arrests later, I have a much greater appreciation for the fact that advocacy takes on many different forms.  Each of them is a valid approach in its own right, but none of them can be successful on their own. In many ways, it's like building a house.  You must use every tool in the toolbox.  The force of the hammer is needed, but so is the precision of the measuring tape.  It also requires a team of people working together, each using his or her unique skills to support the successful completion of the project.

Today my advocacy is defined by analyzing the impact of legislative and bureaucratic action on a person's ability to access health care, the intersection of LGBT and HIV advocacy issues and working specifically to educate elected officials on the state and local level on the realities of HIV in their own communities. I spend more time creating talking points and briefing papers than making banners and placards, but I know that both are equally important when trying to motivate a group of people who remain blind to the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.

And after a quarter century, I still feel the urgency.  Despite all we've learned about effective interventions, too many people continue to become infected each day. Despite how large the HIV system of care has become, too many drop out of care due to frustration at the lack of resources. Despite the hope that medical advancements provide for living a longer life, too many lives are still cut short.

These days I spend more time in a suit and tie than a leather jacket and Doc Martins, but my passion for the work is just as intense as it was when I attended my first protest.

Jeff Graham is the executive director of Georgia Equality.

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