In recent months, there have been a number of incredibly powerful documentaries highlighting the early years of the AIDS epidemic and those individuals who stood up and demanded action. From "We Were Here" and "How to Survive A Plague" to HBO's "Vito," these films serve to remind my generation of the bravery shown and the sacrifices made by those who came before us. But to me these movies, and the timing of their release, serve another equally important purpose. They amplify the clarion call to people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to, once again, step forward and lead the way toward an AIDS-free generation. A future where PLWHA can live long, productive lives with fulfilling intimate and sexual relationships. A future where we will not only be free from AIDS, but free from HIV. A future with a cure and a vaccine.
Our movement has been in transition since the advent of highly effective antiretroviral therapy in 1996. We started living healthier and longer lives. But today, science and policy have aligned like never before, and made it possible to realistically envision an America where HIV infections are rare, even among communities of color, gay men, and transgenders, who bear the brunt of this disease. However, biomedical interventions like treatment as prevention and pre-exposure prophylaxis, and the enhanced access to health care that will come with full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will not end this epidemic on their own. We must also adequately address the complex social and economic factors that not only drive new HIV infections, but also prevent many living with HIV from achieving optimal health outcomes and living their lives in dignity.
Our movement is at a turning point. America's entire HIV/AIDS infrastructure is transforming. PLWHA must be front and center, both to remind us exactly what we are fighting for and to ensure that their needs are actually and adequately being addressed. That's why the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) is so critical. For almost 20 years, the National Minority AIDS Council has emphasized the importance of widespread participation of PLWHA at USCA, through among other things, providing scholarships to help PLWHA to attend.
USCA brings together thousands of workers from all fronts of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—from case managers and physicians, to public health workers and advocates, PLWHAs to policymakers—to build national support networks, exchange the latest information and learn cutting-edge tools to bring an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Very few meetings provide as broad a cross section of our community and you would be hard pressed to find one with more PLWHA representation. That's why, even before I began working at NMAC, I was such an ardent supporter of USCA.
At this year's first ever Summit to End HIV/AIDS in America, PLWHA and community leaders will unite to endorse our Declaration to End AIDS in America. Once again, we will stand on the shoulders of giants, like those who wrote the Denver Principles. We will stand with the 34.2 million PLWHA around the world, including the 1.2 million in the U.S., and will not be divided into groups of gay men, women, sex workers, or transgenders. We are one community united to END AIDS! A community united to demand zero tolerance for stigma and discrimination whether from our elected officials, our service providers, or our community, and especially from those we love and trust who aren't even aware they are hurting us.
The day that we learned we had HIV was a dark day for most of us; we understand all too intimately the challenges it brings and would not wish this burden on anyone. Encouraging our brothers and sisters to get tested, be vigilant about their health, and consider treatment when they are ready will not only help us achieve our goal of slowing the spread of the virus, but restore our leadership in the HIV movement. Most importantly though, ensuring that the health and dignity of those of us already living with HIV must continue to be at the center of our work. This is what we've always fought for. And it has worked. We must continue fighting to ensure that everyone has access to housing, employment, treatment and health care. And we must continue to demand a cure.
As our executive director, Paul Kawata wrote on Tuesday, "our movement finds itself at a time of incredible promise, [but] there are a number of challenges and unknowns that must be addressed. There’s a lot of work ahead of us. We need a unified vision, an actionable plan and the guts to make the tough decisions. We need to be transparent and collaborative. Most of all, we need to believe that we really can end this epidemic." As a black gay man living with HIV, I will be there to ensure that my voice is heard. I hope that you'll join me.
Kali LIndsey is the Director of Legislative & Public Affairs at the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC). For more information about NMAC and/or the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), please visit www.nmac.org.