|photo by Adam Fredericks|
For as long as I can remember, I heard stories of Rodger's friends, whose lives were claimed by AIDS on a daily basis in the early 1980s. I was just in the eighth grade when I first read Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, the Tony Award-winning play about Rodger and the other men who helped organize GMHC, the world's first HIV/AIDS service organization, in response to the tragic loss in their community, and was incredibly moved.
As is often the case in life, I don't think the full impact of the epidemic hit me until I encountered it head on. After I returned from a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in late 2009, I received the devastating news that my boyfriend during that time, a handsome, young Peruvian man, had tested HIV-positive.
As fate would have it, I had just completed a routine HIV test earlier that day and received a negative result, which I attribute to what I learned from my uncle. I came out to Rodger one night in college, and he followed up with a comprehensive sex education discussion the very next morning.
When Rodger died four years ago, Mr. Kramer, with whom he had helped build GMHC, told The Advocate that my uncle had done more for the gay world than any other individual had ever done. "I don't think the gay world knew or knows how great he was, and how much he did for us, and how much we need him still and how much we will miss him," he said.
Although the great loss of my uncle is still felt in the world of HIV and AIDS activism, I have never once given up hope. The first thing I did when I moved to New York was do what my uncle did 30 years ago -- establish myself as a volunteer at GMHC. Their life-affirming programs, including safer-sex education, crisis counseling, hot meals, case management and legal counseling still save lives and extend GMHC's message of "Fight AIDS. Love life."
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is still very real, and its shift in demographics is alarming, with a disproportionate effect on the young, gay, poor and of communities of color. Yet I still hope for a world with zero new HIV infections and zero deaths from AIDS -- a message that was heralded at last year's International AIDS Conference.
A crucial part of achieving an AIDS free generation is recruiting a new contingent of HIV and AIDS activists to carry on the work that my uncle began. That is why I joined GMHC's Millennial Committee which is developing new, young donors.
I want the next generation -- including me -- to step up and be counted to give millions of people affected by HIV and AIDS hope for a better world.
Please join me at GMHC's annual gala, Savor on March 21. For more information, please visit gmhc.org.
Joseph's article was originally published in the Huffington Post on February 13, 2013