I've been to three AIDSWatches so far in my life.
The first was about 10 or 12 years ago. I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I was asked by the Arkansas AIDS Foundation to be the lone state representative. I was flattered and excited. When I got to Washington, D.C., I knew no one; I barely spoke to anyone. I was so nervous going into the meetings on the Hill. I felt pressure to be impressive and knowledgeable about the issues, so much so that I couldn't contain my enthusiasm: I threw up! Luckily, I made it to one of the historic bathrooms, and I had a toothbrush handy. I should get a t-shirt that says, "I barfed on Capital Hill."
I didn't go again to the event until 2016, and the experience was vastly different. Now, I live in New York, which has an Olympic team of delegates, all versed in statistics and issues and history and everything there is to know about HIV. I'm a guy with a pretty big mouth, but I didn't have much to say in those meetings last year. And, because it's New York, we didn't have much of a fight. We're lucky that way; New York lawmakers know that HIV issues are human issues and, for the most part, agreed with every issue we brought up. Kind of a lackluster AIDSWatch for me, but I did make sure to be front and center for the photo op with Chuck Schumer!
I wasn't sure I was going to go this year. I hemmed and hawed about it for a bit, until I started to realize that, this year, in light of the new administration, it was especially important to be show up, be one of the many to attend the event and represent not only the approximately 1.2 million of us living with the virus in the U.S. but also those who are tirelessly working to support people living with HIV and those at the frontlines of HIV prevention.
I took the train in Monday morning, March 27th, from Baltimore, having spent the night before with the delightful Mark S. King and his darling husband Michael Mitchell. Mark and I can get very gossipy and giddy when we get together. When we got to D.C., I got the ball rolling right away with a video of Mark. Luckily, he is always make-up-and-hair camera ready.
That on-the-fly style of video became my M.O. for AIDSWatch 2017. The first day, the more than 600 delegates from across the country came together. Some flew in, rode the train or drove, and others rode days on the Greyhound to be part of this important two-day event. We congregated in two hotel ballrooms to organize, learn about the issues and get fired up for the meetings on the Hill. In sharp contrast with my first time at AIDSWatch, this time I knew a lot of people and was able to schmooze and mingle and cajole people into talking with me on camera.
This first day, I met Finding Prince Charming winner and all around terrific fella Eric Leonardos. Eric has been using his celebrity to bring awareness to HIV and LGBTQ issues. I also caught up with Ken Pinkela, whose story about his HIV criminalization in the military never fails to move me. I wrangled them for a chat about why AIDSWatch was important to them and what they hoped to accomplish. For this conversation, I was able to have TheBody.com's contracted cameraperson film it, and it's currently being edited. It's a coming attraction.
I also spoke to Daniel Driffin, the mega-smart and handsome man living with HIV who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last year. Daniel, a co-founder of THRIVE SS, was being honored by AIDSWatch with a Positive Leadership Award, but I caught up with him for a chat before he went to the ceremony.
The second day was the day of the actual meetings on the Hill, and I decided to accompany the folks from Alabama on their meetings. The director of policy and advocacy from AIDS Alabama, the dapper Alex Smith, was my leader, and I caught his impressions and insights throughout the day. I also got to meet the delegates from their team and was impressed by their passion and knowledge about the needs and challenges regarding HIV in Alabama.
I left AIDSWatch 2017 feeling empowered and hopeful about the future of HIV advocacy in America, and that our country is blessed with passionate people who can lead the way to the end of this epidemic.
Then, the day after AIDSWatch, on March 29, 2017, the White House proposed to slash funding for HIV/AIDS programs and research. And my heart sank.
But, if this year's AIDSWatch taught me nothing else, it is that advocates, activists and steadfast warriors nationwide are ready for the fight. People are advocating on a broad national arena, at the grass roots level and everywhere in between. And we won't be stopped.