Open Arms of Minnesota

Comments from Peace Island Conference

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control reported on a new disease that was afflicting five gay men. We didn’t know at the time, but that day would mark the start of what today is known as the AIDS pandemic. Twenty-seven years ago, Ronald Reagan was president and in 1981, President Reagan would be silent about this new disease. And in 1982, as more and more gay men, IV drug users, and Haitian immigrants began getting sick, Reagan remained silent. And he was silent in 1983, and in 1984, and in 1985, and in 1986. It would be 1987, one year before Reagan left office, before he would address the issue of AIDS – what today we know as the greatest public health crisis the world has ever seen. By that time, the genie was out of the bottle and HIV/AIDS was on the rise in this country and getting a foothold in places like sub-Saharan Africa.

I’m critical of the lack of political leadership on what has become one of the greatest issues of our time, but there is plenty of blame to go around. At the start of the AIDS crisis in this country some corporations discriminated against people with HIV/AIDS. Too many faith communities were silent on the subject, while others were actually condemning. And sadly, many families disowned their children – oftentimes because they could not accept their son’s homosexuality and HIV status.

I know a bit about those early years of the AIDS epidemic because I lived in New York City in the 1980s. When a test for HIV became available, some of my closest friends tested positive and I saw what happened to them when they lost their jobs, their homes, and their faith, before ultimately losing their lives. And then in 2000, I began going to South Africa to a township where one in five of all adults is believed to be HIV-positive, and I met more people affected by the same disease but people who had no access to life-saving medications, people with no homes, no food, and sometimes with no hope.

Through my work at Open Arms of Minnesota to provide food and nutrition to people living with HIV/AIDS, and through my travels and work in the townships of South Africa, I began to see that HIV/AIDS was much more than just a public health crisis. Indeed, AIDS has been allowed to spread from those first few individuals infected with the disease decades ago to tens of millions of people around the world today because of systems of injustice.

HIV/AIDS has as much to do with homophobia, racism, gender inequality, and economic inequality as it does a public health issue. Compare this country’s silence on HIV/AIDS in the 1980s when it was primarily gay men being infected, to this country’s immediate and widespread response to Legionnaire’s Disease which affected a couple of hundred American Legion delegates – most believed to be heterosexual – in 1976 in Philadelphia. And, if you don’t think racism plays a role in HIV/AIDS, do you really believe that our lack of response to AIDS in places like sub-Saharan Africa would have been the same had AIDS impacted white Europeans at the same rate? Do you think it’s mere coincidence that now that the majority of people with HIV/AIDS in the world are women and overwhelmingly they are living in poverty, that we simply throw our arms up in the air and say there is nothing we can do?

Just as homophobia, racism, gender and economic inequalities are interconnected with HIV/AIDS, so too must the solutions be more than prevention and care and treatment. We need a comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS that also addresses: educational opportunities for all, economic independence, access to decent health care, inheritance rights for women, land use, food security, AIDS-sensitive agriculture, the reduction of sexual violence, and same sex marriage.

If you care about any of these issues, you must care about HIV/AIDS because at this point in our history, all of these issues are interconnected – but the solutions don’t necessarily need to be.

I used to say that HIV/AIDS affects people without a voice, but I learned long ago that this isn’t true. It’s not that gay people, people of color, women, and poor people don’t have a voice – it’s just that people with power and privilege choose not to hear those voices. It’s past time that these voices be listened to.

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