When is the last time you heard anything about RED, or bought anything RED? Have you ever bought anything RED? Should you buy anything RED?
Recent reports of infection rates among young African American MSM that are spiraling out of control, and increased rates of STIs among young, African American teenage girls, as well as rising HIV infection rates in general, is definitely cause for alarm. It brings into question whether or not we need to rethink and refocus our prevention efforts, as well as the audiences we are targeting.
But where is the sense of urgency? Where are the protests, the call to arms, the sign-ons, and the leadership -- both within the HIV community, and on the local, state, and federal level? Have we saturated the market in HIV? Does anybody out there care? Or are we all just too burnt out to even give a damn?
We have an aging group of advocates who yearn for the days when we had staged sit-ins and "die-ins," who wonder what group of individuals is going to step up to the plate when the time finally comes to pass the torch. But the "activist mentality," which served us all too well in the beginning years of the epidemic, for whatever reason, just doesn't seem to wash with today's youth. They simply cannot relate. It's a segment that they view in a documentary downloaded onto their iPod, or read about in a blog on their laptop, but they can't be bothered, they're too busy changing their MySpace page, or text messaging their vote for the next "American Idol." They don't have time to stage a protest -- at least not the way that we remember it, anyway. Recent online contributions to the political campaign of a certain presidential hopeful, however, as well as the demographics of that group of contributors, give us all reason to hope. We can, and will, come up with new and innovative approaches to end this plague, approaches that will resonate with an entire new generation of advocates -- if we believe we can.
Today's HIV advocacy community is fractured, splintered, and in dire need of some fresh, new blood. There are many big egos at play here, both in the HIV community as well as the scientific establishment. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, considering what's at stake here. We all want someone out there fighting for us, someone who actually stands a chance of winning the fight. It just seems that more and more of us are battling for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie. Most of the advocates and researchers, in fact the vast majority, are truly dedicated to the cause, and are definitely not in it for the fame and fortune (ah, yes, the glamorous life of the HIV advocate, that's a whole other story).
It's a fine line we all walk, those of us in the AIDS "industry" (oh, how I hate that term, but it is an industry, whether we like it or not). Just as in our nation's capitol, in the field of HIV/AIDS there are "special interest group lobbyists" (read: Big Pharma) and their public relations firms who continuously clamor for the attention of HIV advocates, doctors, and researchers. But in all fairness, these "lobbyists" have a job to do, and the companies have a product to sell. They have to turn a profit. And if they weren't in the business they're in, many of us wouldn't be alive today.
And believe it or not, and I will probably be taken to task for this, there are a tremendous number of people who work for the HIV pharmaceutical industry who believe in the same cause, and are in it for many of the same reasons -- because they want to make a real difference in the lives of people living with HIV. But let's face it, we live in a capitalist society, and the way the free market system in this country works, someone ultimately has to answer to the higher-ups, those whose main concern is turning a profit for their shareholders. We are all, indeed, victims of our own success.
Luckily, we have a diverse and multi-talented group of individuals in this country, those who are truly dedicated to the cause of bringing some of the most important issues to the forefront of our collective, national consciousness. These individuals advocate for those who have no voice, and seek to create and deliver effective prevention messages, to educate, to improve access to health care, to effect change and set new public policy, and to give input on the research and development of vaccines, microbicides, and HIV therapies that are less toxic and easier to take.
But where will the next generation of HIV advocates come from? Where is their voice? What will their rallying cry become? What will be their cause? And will we be listening? Are they out there somewhere and we just aren't hearing them, or including them, or inviting them into the process? Are we unwittingly turning them off by our infighting and posturing, our egos? Or are we just not trying hard enough to reach them, looking in the wrong places, or sending the wrong messages? Has HIV become, dare I say it -- passé?
Just like Madonna, we need to reinvent ourselves if we are ever going to win the fight against HIV/AIDS. We need to bring sexy back to AIDS, baby. We have to throw common sense out the window and become the fifty-year old mother of two who wears lacy underwear and rolls around on stage in front of millions, while gesturing provocatively to agile, half-naked dancers young enough to be her own children. We have to be willing to change our tactics as often as she changes her hair color. Willing to do what it takes to get noticed, and not afraid to look foolish. If we don't, what we stand to lose is infinitely more important than any special recognition or individual accomplishments we may achieve along the way. We must learn to adapt, or risk becoming inconsequential and obsolete. And our voice will get lost in the crowd.
Take care of yourself, and each other.