Around 2000, Red Hot's philanthropic reach began to stretch beyond U.S. shores.
ACT UP activist Sam Avrett and a team that included health advocate Ron MacInnis developed an application process for organizations in African and Latin American countries to receive grants. MacInnis set up a global directory of people living with HIV (PLWH) and agencies serving PLWH. Using this directory, the team drafted a two-page application translated into English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, with lots of multiple-choice questions and very short text questions. Something that would be really simple to fill out, Avrett said.
The world wide web was smaller then. They sent an application to each of the organizations in the directory. Fax machines, not email, were the chief communication medium.
"We really wanted to be able to put the UN system in ours, because government systems and other donors directly contact with networks for people living with HIV. And we created these directories that we were trying to update as best we could, every year, of people living with HIV -- and shared the paper trail with funders," said MacInnis.
"I remember some stories of people saying, 'The only way to get this application to the groups in Bamenda [Cameroon] is to drive up there,' and it was a three, four, five-hour drive. So, we're going to do that -- 'We'll be up there next week, and we'll get it to them,'" Avrett said. "We actually got an application back from Bamenda."
Simultaneously, health advocate Alexandre Menezes was counseling with Grupo Pela Vidda, an HIV patient advocacy group in Rio de Janeiro, when Red Hot + Rio dropped.
"I thought it was a masterpiece. Being Brazilian, and living in Brazil, and having all these fantastic musicians playing some of my favorite songs in a really cool, high-quality, unique way, was also extremely inspiring to me," he said.
Menezes began at Grupo Pela Vidda in 1992 and worked there for nine years.
"At the time, there was a pretty unique place for HIV advocacy [in Brazil]. We were coming out of the dictatorship that ended in '85, and as HIV patients started to rise, visibility of the epidemic started to rise," he said. "A lot of early response to AIDS was done in that context of regaining democratic and political rights. And over the '90s, it was an amazing, coordinated, strong push for advocacy and treatment in Brazil. … The HIV movement is considered a striking example of community, the ability to advocate for the rights to health, basically."
Through the directory and through human connections, Menezes applied for a grant from Red Hot on behalf of Grupo Pela Vidda. Grupo Pela Vidda was started in 1989 by gay and HIV-positive activists and was ACT UP-esque.
"I don't remember the details, but we did get the funding at that time, for advocacy," he said. "I think we had a program that was about getting people's personal perspective out there. The stories of people living with HIV were exploited in the media, but not entirely told in the first person and for educational purposes. We had a whole project there about getting voices out, in companies, in school. We frequently were asked if we would organize those thoughts of people living with HIV, speaking on behalf of their rights, and of their experience."
"That was funded in part by Red Hot," Menezes said. "The grants weren't big. They were relatively small grants, as they need to use for small community organizations, like this one. My first direct contact with Red Hot was as a grantee."
When the second installment of Red Hot + Rio was released in 2011, Avrett again approached Menezes about participating. This time, because Menezes was now living in New York and working for an HIV vaccine organization, he was asked to help with grantee selections and vetting proposals.
Red Hot gave a number of smaller grants to organizations in Brazil, including one that provided psychological care to people with HIV, Menezes said.
MacInnis recalls "those desperate days" early on, when Red Hot was still in its infancy.
"It was really before treatment got to people who needed it most -- and people were dying," he said. "It was quite depressing for HIV globally. Any time we put something towards, you know, marginalized voices in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, [this funding] was the lifeline for people. To help them, communicate with them, [and they] learned they were able to get certain drugs from overseas. We were able to create and foster all kinds of small grants. Those days, we were really pooling medicine for people living with HIV. This Red Hot support helped us to maintain those relationships, have a little bit of funding to put their way. It was pretty awesome."
In 1999 and 2000, the global AIDS program of the Global Health Council, which MacInnis led, implemented a small grants fund -- aimed at funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and NGO networks in developing countries who were raising HIV awareness and leading HIV prevention efforts in hard-to-reach communities.
Funding for the small grants program was mixed with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funding, Ford Foundation funding, and Red Hot funding. Small grants of about $5,000 to $10,000 were provided to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, harm reduction networks in Asia, LGBT-led networks in Asia and Latin America, PLWH networks in Africa, and more.
The news of these donations was not all well received, especially by the contingent of the U.S. political elite who believed HIV to be God's punishment for homosexuality.
"We actually got ourselves in trouble, and I remember it was a famous letter that I would love to track down, because we had a stake with a U.S. government fund," MacInnis said.
With the inclusion of USAID funds came restrictions.
In 2001, the Global Health Council was copied on a letter from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, requesting a formal audit and closure of the small grant program. The reason, MacInnis paraphrased, was that "the Global Health Council was using U.S. government funding to provide support to homosexuals, prostitutes, and drug users."
Helms eventually came around on HIV funding efforts, but not before he had devoted two decades to championing a travel and immigration ban on PLWH, opposing federal financing for AIDS research and treatment, and imposing a federal funding ban on needle exchange programs. Helms had such a reputation for his stance that ACT UP covered his house in Arlington, Virginia, with a giant condom in 1991. The giant condom read, "A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS."
"At the time, to be able to put the funds into those groups in those countries was very innovative. And that was a great concept around the world. Where those groups are actually the key to controlling the epidemic, making sure that they're aware and they're engaged in response to their country," MacInnis said. "It was great to have the support of Red Hot, to be able to fund those groups even back then. Some of those leaders of those small NGOs at the time produced networks of organizations that continue to exist."
"I think advocacy has been profoundly changed by HIV," Sally Morrison said. "Many patients in the early days were going to see physicians who knew even less about the disease than they did. And I think there was this mood that if your doctor didn't know very much about the disease, you should feel totally empowered to go out, with or without any medical training, to research as much as you could on your own and to empower yourself with as much cutting-edge information that was currently available. And I think that movement changed the way everybody now looks at disease, in just a broader sense, that the patient is empowered within to make choices around their own destiny. I think in the early days, around half the [ACT UP] Treatment and Data Committee taught themselves to a level of very highly sophisticated understanding of the science around HIV and were presenting papers and had a place at the table in certain meetings, at NIH [National Institutes of Health] and places like that."
ACT UP was a leader of this new school, even though its Treatment and Data Committee splintered off to start the Treatment Action Group (TAG), with Peter Staley and Mark Harrington at the helm.
"AIDS has relied on a partnership with various industries and communities, including artists, modern artists, and Hollywood," said Staley. "Red Hot has used that kind of progressive reflex that has always been a part of the music industry of not only wanting to make art, but also to impact the world and impact it in a positive way. And they've helped facilitate -- using that reflex among those artists -- to help change the course of AIDS. And I am forever thankful for that."
Avrett describes Red Hot's legacy with vigor. He said, "Red Hot demonstrated a model of raising money through culture, through cultural expression, and supporting the community in small, practical ways. It's a model that is vital to HIV work. The similar organization that I think of is Broadway Cares. Which also raises money from the theater community, not only for the theater community, but for the world. And also, AIDS awareness depends on communication about HIV through cultural venues and cultural meetings. So, I think that's the legacy. It's that it has been one of those efforts that has raised awareness about HIV and has raised and allocated funding for HIV. And there's far too few of those."