At the end of this year, I will finish my final term as a New York State Senator. I was first elected to the Senate in 1998, after serving in the New York City Council for seven years. I have worked hard to represent my community and constituents on Manhattan's West Side for more than 20 years, but decided earlier this year that it is time for a new chapter in my life.
When I first was elected to the State Senate, people told me it was a foolish career choice. Many said that an openly gay, openly HIV-positive man could accomplish little in a highly partisan and conservative State Senate. But I was not discouraged by this talk. Instead, I took it as a challenge and was energized by it. And 14 years later we have proved the naysayers wrong. With my colleagues, we accomplished much, and every success was achieved in a bipartisan fashion.
An AIDS Activist First
As a person living with HIV for at least 27 years and probably longer, I have been involved in AIDS activism since the start of the epidemic. I attended my first ACT UP meeting in 1987 and remained a member even after I was elected to the New York City Council in 1991. In March of 1993, I was arrested during a rally protesting the detention of over 250 Haitians who had tested HIV positive at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After a Federal Court ordered the camp closed and their immediate medical parole to the U.S., I negotiated with Mayor Dinkins' administration to provide them full access to the public "safety net" services offered to all New York City residents with HIV.
I continued to engage in civil disobedience and went to jail on multiple occasions, most recently in November 2011, in protest of Governor Paterson's veto of legislation to cap rent at 30% of income for people with HIV receiving rental assistance from the HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA). Unfortunately, this legislation remains an important goal, not a reality.
As a New York City Councilmember, I successfully fought to increase the city's budget for AIDS and tuberculosis services by over $1 million. And in 1994, I prevented an effort by Mayor Giuliani to eliminate the NYC Division of AIDS Services (now HASA). In 1997, I shepherded a law that made the existence of the agency mandatory, increased its staff, mandated improved oversight, and created a Bill of Rights for its clients.
A New York State Senator
During my time in the State Senate, I worked to kill "HIV Presumption Legislation" -- laws that stated that contraction of HIV by members of particular professions (including law enforcement, taxi and limousine industry, etc.) would be presumed to be job related. In response to this advocacy, Governor Pataki vetoed all HIV presumption bills passed from 1999-2005.
I was appointed to the New York State AIDS Advisory Council in 1997 and continue to serve on that advisory body to the New York State Commissioner of Health and the Department of Health AIDS Institute.
In 2009, I worked to pass the Department of Health (DOH) HIV/Hepatitis C Oversight Law, which gave the DOH oversight of HIV and Hepatitis C treatment for people in New York State prisons and jails.
I spoke at the White House Office of National AIDS Policy's "HIV and Housing Meeting" in December of 2009 on "Bringing successful strategies to scale: The level and nature of unmet housing needs, and a review of existing housing resources," which helped inform President Obama's National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
I worked to pass the HIV Testing/Consent Law in 2010, an important and necessary update to an earlier law. This law requires that HIV testing be routinely offered to people aged 13 to 64 in all health care settings. It preserves written informed consent for conventional HIV testing but simplifies the process of obtaining it -- so that it can be done in the waiting room as part of a general medical consent. It also allows for documented oral informed consent for rapid HIV testing and makes written and oral consent durable at the same provider until it is revoked or expires by its terms. It mandates quick referral to medical care for all who test positive for HIV, and streamlines post-test information for those who test negative. Finally, it protects doctors, providers, and emergency personnel in the event of occupational exposure and expands public health access to HIV information for the purpose of disease monitoring and quality of care oversight.
Another critical piece of legislation that I supported was a 2010 law that legalized the possession of hypodermic needles, including those with drug residue. It clarified sections of the Penal Law to state that participants in needle exchange programs are not acting unlawfully by possessing a needle or syringe from that program. There's clearly no point in providing clean needles through these programs if the people obtaining them can then be arrested for having them! The legislation also stated that possession of a residual amount of a controlled substance in a needle or syringe is not a crime if the individual is legally permitted to possess the needle or syringe under the Public Health Law. This allows people to return their used needles and syringes to the programs -- an important component of "exchange."
The Fight Continues
But there's still much work to be done. In addition to passing the 30% HASA rent cap, we must address these important issues:
- Establish a statewide Division of AIDS Services to provide access to benefits and services to every person with HIV in New York State.
- Increase funding for HIV prevention and health literacy among older people on the state level.
- Expand syringe access by lifting the cap on the number of syringes that pharmacies can sell to an individual.
- Increase funding for shelters for runaway and homeless youth, a group particularly vulnerable to HIV.
- Ensure success of legislation that has been passed, including the DOH oversight of prisoner HIV treatment and routine offering of HIV testing, through proper funding and management.
- Continue investment in evidence-based HIV prevention and increased funding for community-based outreach and education initiatives regarding HIV and sexual health, with particular emphasis on women and girls of color, and men of color who have sex with men.
The fight goes on. And on January 1st, while I may no longer be a Senator, I will continue to be an activist and an advocate. I will proudly hold these positions for life, and I hope that you'll join me in making a difference in the lives of all those with and at risk for HIV