There is this myth that marriage equality is the silver bullet for all the ails in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. As if having the right to say “I do” in all 50 states will solve everything. It won’t. Tomorrow night, Sir Elton John and his longtime partner, David Furnish, will remind everyone at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual national dinner that the HIV/AIDS epidemic still demands our attention. And they will challenge the LGBT community to act.
“This is the critical moment in our fight, and so many of us don’t seem to care. Even in our own community. Especially in our own community,” John will say, according to prepared remarks he shared with me Friday. This comes after he rattles off some startling statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation, including how “only 30 percent of gay and bisexual men have had an HIV test in the past year. A majority of gay men don’t even talk about HIV with their friends or partners. More than 60 percent don’t even talk about HIV with their doctor.”
John and Furnish will announce at the dinner a $300,000 grant to the HRC to assist in its HIV/AIDS prevention and advocacy around the root causes of the epidemic’s spread. “Our grant . . . is the beginning of a new initiative to refocus and reenergize the LGBT fight against AIDS,” Furnish told me in an email. And in his prepared remarks he will decry the lack of compassion for those who contract HIV/AIDS, which only serves to help spread the disease.
If a young gay man won’t get tested because he’s afraid of the stigma attached to HIV, that’s how the virus spreads. If a former prisoner can’t get the medicine she needs to bring her viral levels down, because no one cares about prisoners, that’s how HIV spreads. If a drug user won’t bother with rehabilitation or HIV prevention because he has been told time and again that his life is worthless, that is how HIV spreads.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 50,000 people become HIV positive every year. Most of them are young African American men who have sex with men. Most of them live in the South. Compounding the impact of the silence in the gay community is the opposition to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. As I wrote last month, HIV/AIDS continues to rage in the South.
This devastating map and others like it were brought to my attention by Lauren Banks of AIDS Alabama. It turns out that her organization and many like it are supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, not only is EJAF the largest funder of gay organizations in the South, it is also the No. 1 funder of black LGBT organizations.
“We now know that AIDS thrives where it’s ignored. So it’s no surprise that the South, for example, is the new American epicenter for AIDS. Or that African Americans are eight times more likely to contract HIV than whites. Many Southern states don’t provide proper treatment options for AIDS, or have LGBT-friendly health care policies. And the African American community has been neglected for too long,” John told me. “These failures have nothing to do with science, and everything to do with getting health care and information to the marginalized groups that need it most. That’s why we support organizations that help the people and communities that are being ignored. The real fight against AIDS is taking place in low-income communities, in the rural south, and in the inner-city. That’s where we need to get to work.”
In addition to the grant to the HRC, John and Furnish will soon announce another $1.1 million in grants to organizations battling HIV/AIDS. In D.C., where HIV/AIDS is an epidemic on par with West Africa, EJAF funding has gone to AIDS United, HIPS and the National Black Justice Coalition.
“Thanks to advancements in science and hard advocacy work, HIV is no longer a death sentence. Unfortunately, some members of the LGBT community have taken that to mean they can ignore the AIDS epidemic,” Furnish told me. “No one’s going to save us but ourselves. It’s on us to put an end to HIV.”
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