I was a skeptic when Trump asked Democrats and Republicans to make a commitment to end the U.S. HIV epidemic. I didn’t want them to follow him down another rabbit hole. During Trump’s campaign to become president, he told every group of people he needed to vote for him anything they wanted to hear.
I had hoped that Trump would keep promises that benefited everyone and not just the top 1% of the wealthy in our great country. My hope began to fade regarding his HIV/AIDS promises when he disbanded the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Then, I saw everyone else who worked with the Obama administration on ending the AIDS epidemic walk away. I know they didn’t walk out because they gave up the fight. They left, as I understand it, out of frustration from not being taken seriously or given any resources. During his latest State of the Union address, Trump only used 63 words total when he talked about the AIDS epidemic. Recently, I read an article from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in which he said the U.S. spends over $20 billion annually in direct health expenditures for HIV prevention and care. In 2017, 38,739 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with HIV, a number that has been about stable since 2012.
In order to fight the epidemic, Secretary Azar posits that finding and diagnosing the one person in seven who doesn’t yet know their HIV status is key.. With approximately 1.1 million HIV-positive Americans, that’s approximately 165,000 people. OK, Mr. Secretary, you have my attention. But, how do you get those approximately 165,000 Americans living with HIV out in the open so they can be tested? Speaking from personal experience, and having many discussions around HIV testing, it’s important to take into consideration that some people just don’t want to know their HIV status. For some, it is a lot easier to live with not knowing than the pressure of having to be responsible for an illness for which they could be held criminally accountable. At this time in the worldwide movement to decriminalize HIV, I am open about what I did that landed me in prison: non-disclosure and unprotected sex while knowing I had HIV.
The next key, according to Secretary Azar, is to treat the infection rapidly and effectively after diagnosis to achieve sustained viral suppression. I am living proof that treating my HIV has allowed me to live for the past 29 years. I’m still healthy enough to keep on living for several more years, as long as I take care of myself and listen to my doctor.
The third key is to protect individuals at risk for HIV using proven prevention approaches, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
The last key is to respond to growing HIV clusters and prevent new HIV infections. For me, the most vulnerable — and overlooked — group of people are young people, including people as young as junior-high-school age. Teaching sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention should be mandatory for all health classes across the country — in public schools and private schools. Currently, only 24 states plus the District of Columbia require public school to teach sex education, and only 22 states and D.C. have a mandate to teach both sex education and HIV prevention.
The four key strategies that are laid out by Secretary Azar make it sound like it is possible to end the AIDS epidemic. I support an end to this very expensive illness. But I have to ask you: How do you entice those people in all demographics that continue to transmit the virus unknowingly because they don’t want to get tested? The strategy you set forth may slow the epidemic’s progression, but how will you stop it, really? Hepatitis C can be cured now, which will eventually eradicate new infections. So how about a cure for HIV? Scientists are very close, and they need that push over the finish line. Why not throw the money they need their way?
Just seeing how the current administration treats marginalized people like asylum seekers crossing the southern border, people living in the U.S. who have HIV don’t stand a chance of being treated fairly. Back in the early 1990s, I heard conspiracy theorists say that AIDS was a method of population control to capitalize on the end of undesirable people. To the elite 1%, that is Trump and his circle of friends, who would rather let me die from AIDS than work with those fighting to end discrimination against people with HIV: My life matters.
To be clear to those of you reading this, I respect the office of the president of the United States. I love the fact that we have a democracy. And I love that through social media, my voice can be heard. I won’t trust anything that Trump will ever say. But the HIV advocates all over the country should still work with this administration. When it comes to ending the epidemic, I realized that Trump has the final say in this fight for much-needed funding. So I would like to see a partner from the White House that will fight and follow up on their promise. One thing that I have learned in prison is that you can have all the money you could ever want, but if you don’t keep your word when you promise something, then your word is no good. A lie in prison comes with consequences, like loneliness and mental stress that can drive anyone to an early grave. This is what is known as being held accountable by my peers. Now, I’m not going to condone this behavior behind these walls, because that is not the societal norm.
I am an HIV/AIDS activist inside these prison walls, and it makes me feel that I’m not being effective in the fight outside. That is why we need to put our differences aside and always remember that the end of the AIDS epidemic is not a partisan or political fight. This fight has been on for many decades. This administration will hopefully be a four-year term and a distant memory, replaced with a human being that is compassionate and will treat each person with the dignity and respect they deserve.