Tired but Invigorated
I'd like to tell you about a conference that I had doubts about at first -- the United States Conference on AIDS. Yet another AIDS Conference! What new is there to say? Yet more chicken lunches, listening to people tell us what we already know and drug reps handing out free pens and a forest's worth of pamphlets. Yes, there was a chicken lunch and tons of paper shoved at us, but there was also an invigorating feeling about the conference, an excitement about what is down the road, and a keen awareness of the job ahead of us.
ReconstructionOne of the best attended workshops that I attended looked at "Reconstruction" -- how to start your life again after having thought that you were headed out of here. The workshop, led by the charismatic Mark King from AIDS Atlanta, discussed a six-session program that his organization has created to help people living with HIV and/or AIDS to get back into the workplace if it is appropriate for them. The program, which was developed over a period of time by trial and error, covers all the problems people are likely to encounter: explaining what you have been doing out of the workforce for the past three years, finding employment that is rewarding in all its aspects, figuring out the dilemma of benefits, and seriously considering how you will manage financially if you live to be seventy-five.
Every Sector of Our PopulationSponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, the conference brought to my attention suffering groups that I had given relatively little thought to. If you are deaf, how do you negotiate safe sex or find out about the latest treatment regimes if you cannot communicate with the hearing majority? American Indians, many of whom still live on reservations, are dealing with denial in many of their tribes. Like the Aborigines of Australia and other native peoples around the world, they are particularly prone to alcoholism, which exacerbates the problem.
Our black churches are having to come to terms with the fact that their sons are as likely to be gay as their white neighbors'. Rural states without the density of population of either the Northeast or West Coast are having to devise a means of providing healthcare and support to people who may live 50 miles apart from each other and in an environment where merely volunteering for an AIDS organization can lead to stigmatization! Youth workers in our major cities are having to be ingenious in working with the young and persuade them that they are not "the post-HIV generation." They are at much risk as anyone else.
It sounds as if more questions were asked than were answered. The important thing, though, is that we are asking the right questions. No one involved in public health could possibly have left the conference without being aware of how AIDS has now affected and infected every sector of our population.
The multitude of workshops were well organized and we met in small groups to discuss topics of specific interest. The array of choices was amazing. There were workshops on "Male to Female Transgendered Sex Workers," "HIV Prevention and Risk Reduction Strategies Targeting Migrant Farmworkers," and "Detangling the World Wide Web of Information."All these subjects matter and there are many groups whose needs have up until now not been considered or appreciated.
Dr. HoDr. Ho, Time Magazine's Man of the Year and surely one of the most modest and self-effacing men I have ever come across, spoke on Saturday afternoon. He took us through the latest scientific developments in a manner that allowed the majority of the non-scientists present to understand what was going on. During his speech, I looked around and all eyes were trained upon him. His triple-combination trial at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center is now in its 26th month. Those still able to withstand the medications are still doing well, although he showed slides that ominously indicated that the virus was still in the blood -- though it's dormant, and present in small quantities.
Altagracia PerezFor the final plenary session we listened to a wonderful Black Latino Episcopal minister, the Reverend Altagracia Perez. Born in the South Bronx, from an economically disadvantaged family that has lost people to AIDS, this dynamic, 4' 9" tall force of nature -- with her call to those of us present to head back into the fight -- was exactly the right person to send us on our way. She reminded us that "Politics is not a dirty word just because a lot of dirty people are involved in it." At a conference heavily sponsored by the drug companies, she passionately attacked our healthcare system, which implies that "if you can't afford it, you don't deserve to be here anyway." She also attacked the way in which the religious right "teach people to hate people they've never even met. This is a disease and not a moral issue," she emphasized.
The recent discussion about unsafe sex in the gay community and the willingness of people to engage in it has made it clear that people think the AIDS crisis is over. It isn't: In fact it's far from over. Those of us who are gay may be fed up with AIDS, having endured the brunt of it for the past 16 years, but many communities are just becoming aware of it. Our job as gay and straight AIDS activists may have changed somewhat, but it is very far from over. I came away from the conference with my batteries re-charged.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.