AIDS activists have historically been a cohesive movement: able to work together on similar goals, through a variety of tactics, despite varying socio-economic, sexuality, race and gender backgrounds. Granted, there have been some explosive differences; particularly in San Francisco. One of the more volatile situations that comes to mind involves ACT UP SF throwing the contents of a cat litter box at Larry Kramer. However; when it comes down to it, we have been supportive of each other because we need to be. Being HIV+ is still criminalized and vilified, and poz people are still outlaws in our society.
We are in a unique time now, however. It is finally concrete: AIDS is big business. It became this way through a long process, spanning the past 30 years In this time the pharmaceutical companies have always been doing what they do best; charging outrageous prices that ensure that there is no motivation to find a cure. The high cost of medications drive everything around them, reinforcing a structure that focuses on the ability to accumulate large sums of money. We see this in current AIDS culture: H&M fashion for AIDS clothing line, giant billboards with fear based messaging, and multi-million dollar organizations whose direct services are derailed through the bureaucracy of chasing funding dollars.
It’s hard to complain about the excess when you know about the history. Years went by where the only governmental intervention amounted to distributing a poster asserting: ‘DON’T ASK FOR AIDS; DON’T GET IT’. In regard to resources, we have been in a feast or famine state since people first came together to demand government accountability in the AIDS crisis. In the HIV/AIDS world we are still in a crisis mentality, where any money is “good” money – don’t ask where it came from. PEPFAR (the U.S. governmental organization that provides international funds earmarked for AIDS services,) has a policy of denying funding to organizations that support sex worker rights. While many AIDS programs strongly disagree with this policy, and other similar exclusionary clauses, they comply because they are starved for cash.
Public AIDS activism has been replaced by AIDS consumerism. The face of AIDS organizing has shifted from grassroots community outreach, to one of business marketing, clothing lines, and thousand dollar memorial bricks; all of which are targeted towards a particular class bracket. This creates an illusion that people in the US living with HIV are spoiled for resources, that AIDS exists only as a memory, and that only “third world” communities suffer from lack of services.
The reality is that the AIDS crisis still exists. At one point, medication and treatment options were a scarcity for all poz people, but with protease inhibitors coming onto the market in 1996, economically advantaged people now have the opportunity to take their meds and be quiet, which is heavily reinforced by the social pressure of continuing AIDSphobia. But for the homeless, people living with mental illness, the incarcerated, trans women who are unable to access competent care, and the over 9000 people on the national ADAP waiting list – the experience of living with HIV/AIDS looks the same as it did in the 80’s and 90’s – minus the community support.
On World AIDS Day in San Francisco, there were 3 events. A film, a Castro merchant public health campaign, and A Light in the Grove – an AIDS gala whose tickets started at $175 each, $500 for VIP access. Could David Wojnarowicz ever imagined this future? No anger, no protests, no fight left. Commemoration available only for those with disposable incomes, where only the wealthy are allowed to mourn.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this was an anomaly for this year. Radical AIDS activism in SF has been at a standstill for sometime, the territory of a few hardworking people. The stranglehold of the budget keeps most community organizations desperately grasping to keep their doors open, much less able to challenge the institutions that fund them. This is the situation: HIV organizations are, vastly, no longer run by poz people; the CDC guidelines that dropped community building and anti-stigma work in favor of a ‘test and treat’ model that now guides HIV prevention services; and the Circle of Friends in the AIDS Memorial Grove is sponsored by Wells Fargo – a major investor in prisons – a predominant source of HIV transmissions in this country.
World AIDS Day is the time for us to honor our own: the people who locked themselves to the old fed building at the ARC Vigil, who lay down in the streets, who took over churches to stand down homophobic archbishops and demanded rights and recognition of poz people. We still have so much to fight for: Barbara Lee, congresswoman California’s 9th district has introduced three bills supporting decriminalization of HIV transmission, access to condoms in prison, and an end to abstinence only education. We must fight for those and the availability of generic HIV meds both internationally and inside the US, and there are many more battles before we can rest.
There is an appropriate place for exclusive fundraising events, but at a time where there are up to 2,500 HIV+ homeless people living in San Francisco it is unconscionable that we have nothing else. With the nationwide Occupy movement, people all over are standing up against big corporations, using ACT UP chants, demanding change: for all those who care about HIV, this is our moment!
This World AIDS Day we recommit to a radical voice. Forget about marketing tactics, AIDS soirées, and public health billboards. Remember that there is still a lot to fight for. We have a rich history to commemorate, but more important is that don’t just memorialize it – we draw from it and seek to change a culture which perpetuates the spread of HIV and which supports poz folks beyond extortionate meds and collectable AIDS figurines.