HIV Activism Lapses


By Kenneth Miller

Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan.

At this year’s New York AIDS Walk, Governor Andrew Cuomo reiterated his 2014 initiative to make HIV/AIDS a thing of the past. Through a strategic three-point plan demarcated with the help of The New York Department of Health, Cuomo trusts the current level of 3,000 newly infected HIV persons yearly will decrease to 750 within the next five years. If successful, HIV will no longer be considered an epidemic in New York.

Cuomo’s plan–which focuses entirely on the outreach and medical treatment of already infected people–is wholly dependent on the most-at-risk HIV communities–men who have sex with men and transgender women–coming forth, utilizing government funded resources and testing, halting the transmission of the virus once and for all.

The plan is allusive to the medical movement, which queer activists are citing as “treatment as prevention.” However, as health officials and political scientists have noted, there is a clear divide among older generations and Millennials who find there to be a need to get tested and/or practice safe sex because of the virus’s overarching decreased visibility since the 1980s epidemic’s onset.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest HIV index indicates that youth between the ages of 13 and 24 account for 26 percent of the newly infected HIV population in the United States. Sadly, what’s more telling of Millennials’ lack of safe sex practices and education regarding the virus is the 22 percent increase of infections in this age group since 2008.

These numbers are increasing at such a rapid rate on the basis of multiple variables. Editor-in-Chief of The Verge and graduate of Brown’s Medical University Nilay Patel has studied this dichotomous relationship, finding the premier reason behind its growth to be Millennials’ aversion to testing and therefore inherent transmission of the virus.

Specifically looking at college students, Patel’s studies have unraveled the lack of available HIV/AIDS testing and care offered on an overwhelmingly large amount of college campuses. He hints at the idea that college administrations hold a “general sentiment of complacency,” bringing forward the lowest degree of medical care and outreach to their students when testing for HIV/AIDS.

This lack of outreach is surprising, but not questioned by most students. Young adults are often too fearful of the stifling stigma that’ll result after testing positive for HIV that’ll they’ll forgo the process entirely; others are unwittingly aloof, solely detached from the depth of the virus, finding there to be no need to get tested at all.

This is reasonably concerning–and honestly true. As a Millennial queer man who is considered to be at a higher risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, I am well aware of–and share in–my peers’ feelings of disassociation from HIV/AIDS. I would attribute this lack of concern regarding the virus to my zero contact with those who suffer from it. This is considerably odd being that I attend a predominately queer school; no one (that I know) is open about their HIV status, making the virus innately invisible. I go about, as do most of my peers, assuming that we’re all safe, “clean” from a virus that is intangible, one that’s exclusive to history books.

Photo courtesy of Griffin Boyce.

The recent introduction of HIV preventive drugs like PrEP have seemingly waived the danger of unprotected sex in the minds of many Millennials. Instead of popping a pill every day for the rest your life, you can now take PrEP after having potential contact with the virus—it’s simple, easy, and safe. However, the fetishization of “bare-backing” in tangent with the high cost of HIV preventative drugs makes the end of the AIDS epidemic appear to be in the much further future.

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia and NYU and key investigator in the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at Columbia University Medical Center Raymond A. Smith noticed the consciousness gap between Millennials and Baby Boomers when concerning HIV/AIDS in the fall of 2013. From there, Smith has been at the forefront of educating queer youth in the depth of the still prevalent infection, introducing the idea and need for a fourth wave of AIDS activism.

Smith tells BTR a fourth wave of AIDS activism “would be characterized by a sustained, widescale, mobilized contention towards [HIV] specific goals.” He finds we are inching closer to an end of the epidemic with Cuomo’s plan, specifically with the inclusion of provided preventive drugs like PrEP.

“We’ve heard about the “end of AIDS” for so long that it can sound like a cliche,” Smith says. He goes on to explain that if a fourth wave of activism were to arise, it would “combine a reclaiming of the history and energy of the earlier waves, a distillation of their lessons for today’s circumstances, [and] the transmission of those lessons to a new generation that had little or no direct experience of [the] AIDS epidemic.”

The influx of an additional wave of AIDS activism would be momentous for queer youth. The continuation of narratives by infected HIV/AIDS persons is the crux to the disembodiment of intrinsic stigmas that are derivative of the virus’s history. Smith finds that activism groups including the recently revitalized ACT UP with newer movements–such as social media campaign HIV Equal–are at the backbone of energizing this fresh rift of activism.

As Smith notes: it’s all about “keeping HIV/AIDS a part of active discussion.”