Decades Later Epidemic Still Rages

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.

When Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) opened its doors 25 years ago, gay men were dying at alarming rates from what in a few months would be known worldwide as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. It was a devastating time for our community, and we were fortunate to have an organization respond so quickly with information, support and advocacy for all of us who were being increasingly affected by the disease.

As someone who lived through those terrifying early years, I remember the leading role GMHC took in our communities on behalf of people with HIV. I was proud to collaborate with the organization when I came on board as executive director of Lambda Legal 15 years ago and am now proud to honor GMHC for its quarter century of service to our communities next month at Lambda Legal's 2007 Liberty Awards ceremony in New York City

Lambda Legal's work on behalf of people living with HIV predates my tenure with the organization. We won the first HIV discrimination lawsuit in the nation, and early on we helped force hospitals to treat people with HIV. We also played a key role in major U.S. Supreme Court cases interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with HIV from discrimination.

Thanks to HIV testing, antiretroviral drugs, better HIV prevention and education services and stronger laws, life today can be better for people living with and affected by HIV. But I fear these advances may have made us a bit complacent — and prematurely at that. In its third decade, HIV continues to have devastating effects nationwide, not to mention the numerous other places around the world that have been ravaged by the epidemic.

Among people living with HIV in the United States, more than 45 percent are men who have sex with men, and the disease is having a particularly serious impact on black gay men and young communities of color. Despite the availability of treatments, an estimated 500,000 people with HIV in this country are not in regular care, primarily because they lack health insurance. And while there are some confidentiality protections and antidiscrimination laws, LGBT people and others affected by HIV continue to face discrimination in the workplace, denial of health care and other services, barriers to parenting and reproductive health and violation of privacy rights, among other things.

At Lambda Legal we continue to address these difficulties through litigation — our current case challenging the U.S. State Department's ban on Foreign Service applicants with HIV, for example. We also do a great deal of policy advocacy, closely aligned as always with service organizations like GMHC. Right now, for instance, we are working with a number of national and local HIV and health organizations to make sure the new testing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don't violate people's confidentiality or curtail access to important counseling services.

Over the years we've seen how homophobia remains a serious barrier to HIV prevention and treatment, sound public policy and antidiscrimination efforts. We've also learned that discrimination against people with HIV undermines the rights of all LGBT people. In other words, we are all living with and affected by HIV, and we need to come together once more to combat the crushing effects of this disease.

Which brings me to another important anniversary this spring: the 20th anniversary of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). While most of the organization has been quiet for more than a decade, founder Larry Kramer revived it a couple of weeks ago with protests in New York and San Francisco. On Wall Street — the site of ACT UP's first demonstration in 1987 — people shouted "Heath care for all!" They demanded lower drug costs and expansion of services for people with HIV. There was even a "die-in," where people lay down amid body bags and some were arrested.

It's great to see the fighting spirit and anger of the eighties coming alive again. What's tragic is that the fight itself feels all too familiar.

*Kevin Cathcart is a featured monthly columnist for 365Gay.com.

Read Kevin's previous columns:

March 2007: The ABC's of Discrimination