January 6, 2014
What attracted you to TAG?
I took a class called Global AIDS Policy during my last semester at Columbia where I learned about a number of key HIV/AIDS activist organizations and how they essentially changed the entire practice of public health. One of the organizations I studied was TAG. I remember being so inspired by these amazing HIV-positive activists who didn't simply rely on so-called experts to develop lifesaving treatments; they became the experts themselves and showed everyone the way forward. When I saw that TAG was hiring, I knew that I wanted to be a part of that legacy; I wanted to work alongside all these amazing expert-activists.
How did you get into HIV activism?
I've been interested in working on HIV-related issues for most of my adult life, but my real dedication to HIV activism came after my own diagnosis in 2008. At the time, I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, and, unfortunately, the Peace Corps' policy at the time was to dismiss volunteers who tested positive. Fortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union took up my case, and together we were able to get the Peace Corps to change its official stance on HIV-positive volunteers. Now, if a volunteer tests positive, that person can finish his or her service without interruption. Ever since that time, I've been obsessed with trying to address misconceptions about the virus, those living with it, and those most at risk for it. There is a lot of injustice associated with HIV in the United States and around the globe, and I want to do what I can to change that.
You will be focused primarily on HIV prevention. What do you think are the critical priorities, domestically, at this point in the epidemic?
There are so many critical priorities. I think that as a nation we've really done a poor job of protecting a number of key populations from getting HIV, and we have a lot of catching up to do. We need to work toward the development of a broadly accepted, responsibly funded, strategic plan for HIV prevention in this country. At present, many of us working in HIV prevention are well aware of the HIV crises going on in several communities in the United States, but we're unsure of how to move forward for a number of reasons. For one, with the advent of preexposure prophylaxis, postexposure prophylaxis, and treatment as prevention, we have new technologies to prevent new HIV infections. However, how do we incorporate these innovations into programs that historically have focused on behavioral interventions, condom use, safer injection practices, HIV testing, et cetera? How do we take programs that currently exist for HIV-negative individuals and include prevention for people who are positive? In essence, what should comprehensive prevention programs look like? How do we effectively match interventions with individuals? Specific interventions will not be equally effective for all people -- we need to know what prevention products are being demanded, where the products are needed, and then supply them accordingly.
Right now HIV prevention is woefully underfunded in comparison with treatment, with only 3.7% of the CDC's 2012 HIV/AIDS budget dedicated to preventing new infections. We need to ensure that the funding matches up with the evidence -- the right interventions need to be funded with a focus on high-prevalence areas.
Finally, as a sociologist at heart, I believe that the number one priority is, and always will be, eradicating stigma. We can have all the great prevention tools in the world, but if people are too afraid to seek them out for fear of judgment or discrimination, then we are doomed to fail. We absolutely must include effective interventions for HIV-related stigma as a central element in all of our prevention efforts.