Hundreds of people effected and affected by the HIV epidemic rallied on the Washington Mall Saturday night to call for an end to the epidemic.
The event, sponsored by Housing Works, an HIV/AIDS service organization, featured speeches from people with HIV, musical entertainment and spoken word art designed to inform, challenge and bring attention to the epidemic.
Sean Strub, founder of POZ magazine which has an audience of HIV infected persons, said the event was the first time in about a decade that those infected, effected and affected by the virus, which causes AIDS, had planned. Planning for the event got underway in the beginning of Sept. Strub said.
Gathered in the shadow of the Washington Monument, and a stone throw’s distance from the back of the White House, the crowd gathered. They were young and old, men and women, African American as well as African nationals. There were lesbians, and gay men as well as transgenders. Rainbow flags and red ribbons were the accessories of the day.
The rally and candle light vigil come a week after President Barack Obama made a historic call to action on the issue, and has launched an initiative to develop the country’s first every HIV/AIDS Strategy.
"This weekend is about achieving full equality for LGBT Americans," said National Equality March organizer Cleve Jones. Jones is also the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and cut his teeth organizing the LGBT community in San Francisco alongside gay icon Harvey Milk. "We need to use that political power to remind the country that the AIDS epidemic continues."
Jones said he was hopeful the many youth attending the National Equality March would take up the issue if HIV/AIDS and continue the battle in the realms of prevention as well as treatment, and fighting the stigma of HIV.
Housing Works issued a press release noting that gay and bisexual men, labeled men who have sex with men in community health circles, are 50 times more likely to become infected with HIV than any other demographic in America. Among younger gay men, the rate of new infections between 2001 and 2006 have continued to increase 12 percent annually.
"Most of our energized LGBT activists are too young to remember the devastating impact AIDS has had on the gay community. We must re-engage the larger LGBT community in AIDS activism," said Charles King, president and chief executive officer of Housing Works. "Ending the HIV pandemic is an issue of justice that must be their fight as well."
Shawn Decker, a 34-year-old Virginia resident who was infected with HIV through tainted blood products, echoed those concerns in an interview.
"College students today are coming out eight years of abstinence only education," Decker said. "They’ve been told, in effect, don’t have sex before marriage or you’ll die."
That scare tactic is a failed education program, Decker said. He said the abstinence only focus of the Bush years has resulted in higher incidences not only of HIV, but also other sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.
"We’re not giving young people any credit for their intelligence," said Decker, who is also author of the book My Pet Virus. "I don’t believe in learning backwards."
Decker also noted that the front page stories and media focus on HIV the country saw during the late 80s and early 90s, before the advent of antivirals which have dramatically improved the quality and longevity of those living with HIV, may never return. And while the mainstream media is unlikely fully engage in the discussions around HIV and prevention, Decker said the generation of young people coming of age today have a new tool.
Social media. He said that is going to revolutionize the way HIV prevention messages are delivered, he said.
"A couple of college students can create a prevention video and put it up on Youtube, and it is shared with their friends, who in turn share it with their friends," Decker said. And he said it is key that youth lead the messaging, as they are the most at risk for infection.
As a straight man who was infected with the virus by tained blood products given to him to address his hemophilia, Decker and his wife Gwen travel the country talking to college students and classes. He said is about empowering young people.
"It’s about taking it into our own hands," he said.
"The HIV epidemic is not over," former Miss America and current broadway star Kate Shindle told the crowd. She was joined by other broadway and theatre veterans. Shindle won the Miss America title in 1999 and made HIV/AIDS her platform. While she no longer has the crown, she has continued her activism.
Activists also ralled against other countries, where being gay and HIV positive will get a person denied access to life saving medications. They also called on the United States to honor its commitments to funding through PEPFAR and other funding mechanisms.
The event was one of several events around the National Equality March for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. Thousands of people are expected to descend upon the capitol to demand the repeal of laws such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell which prohibits openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, and the Defense of Marriage Act, DOMA. In addition, marchers will demand the immediate passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, a law created to battle hate crimes, as well as the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, ENDA.