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AIDS Silence: America's New Gay Plague

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In early fall, Wisconsin Congresswomen Tammy Baldwin released a YouTube video imploring the LGBT community to support Pres. Obama's health care overhaul. The missive's timing could not have been more meaningful -- arriving after months of anti-Obama rhetoric from Gay leaders incensed over the President's perceived inaction on major campaign commitments. Yet while the video was a welcome sign of rapprochement, it was most notable for its disappointment. For not once in the entire 3:36 message did Baldwin -- an openly-Lesbian Democrat -- mention the words "AIDS" or "HIV".

Not once!

Income inequality -- important. Tax discrimination -- crucial. But AIDS/HIV -- not so much.

The AIDS silence undercutting Baldwin's message was deafening in its bombast. Indeed, nearly three decades after the epidemic's arrival, AIDS remains if exactly not off-limits -- then certainly off the radar screens of many prominent LGBT leaders. Instead, they're focused on promoting a happier, healthier, far more hetero-palatable image of the Gay community -- much like the one offered in Baldwin's video. Tainted by sex, drugs, race and class, AIDS has no place in this homogenized-homosphere battling for issues such as Marriage Equality and its Denier-in-Chief, Pres. Obama.

Yet the reality of HIV -- and its stubborn strangle-hold on Gay men -- has never been harsher. Just weeks before Baldwin's Youtube sham, the Centers for Disease Control released a first-of-its-kind study confirming Gay men are 50 times likelier to contract HIV than any other American demographic. Without doubt, Black and Hispanic Gay men are at the greatest risk; but White men, too, have far higher rates of HIV infection than any corresponding group of American women. It may sound anachronistic -- and it will certainly be unpopular -- but while AIDS has long ceased being just a Gay disease, it certainly remains a disease of the Gays.

Ironically, no one is probably more aware of this than Baldwin herself -- who has led the fight to ensure adequate AIDS funding on Capital Hill. While Baldwin's actions are certainly commendable, no amount of behind-the-scenes politicking can compensate for her undeniable on-air cowardice. A seasoned master of both the video medium -- and its message -- Baldwin was one AIDS messenger who dishearteningly (and dangerously) failed to deliver. Charged with galvanizing the Gay community -- her community -- behind health care reform, Baldwin inexcusably ignored their most vital health-care concern since the beginning of the organized LGBT movement four decades ago.

While she may be its most prominent Lefty Lesbian adherent, Baldwin is hardly the only major LGBT leader to succumb to AIDS Silence. Indeed, since the arrival of anti-retroviral medications 15 years ago, prominent Gay thinkers from David Sanford to Andrew Sullivan have triumphantly declared the era of AIDS behind us.

After more than a decade of death and decimation, the desire to view ARVs as a pill-sized panacea was certainly understandable. Yet as spiraling HIV rates from Harlem to Harare to Hyderabad confirm, such sanguine prognostics were clearly premature. What's more, stats like the CDC's above -- and new research charting the damage AIDS does to its aging carriers -- suggest AIDS will remain a long-term, core Gay health-care concern even within America's most bourgeois boroughs. "As more people are living longer with HIV each year, it's now a lifetime battle," observes Dr. Walt Senterfitt, an epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and Board Co-Chair, Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project.

Equally as startling as Baldwin's AIDS Silence was the silence surrounding the silence. While numerous LGBT blogs noted the "importance" of Baldwin's actions, few bothered to actually critique its contents. There was no outrage over her HIV omission, no demands for accountability for her AIDS oversight. Rep. Baldwin wasn't asking her LGBT audience to take HIV health care seriously -- and following her cue, LGBT Inc. certainly wasn't either.

Yet it is Gay men themselves who are most damaged by AIDS Silence such as Badlwin's -- which only magnifies the shame, stigma and secrecy which can lead to new infections. "The lack of discussion around AIDS creates barriers for honest discourse about HIV status -- especially in young people," Senterfitt says. "This can help spread the virus while keeping those infected from seeking adequate health care."

AIDS Silence has also helped reshape the battle against HIV itself -- shifting from vocal safe-sex and infection-prevention strategies, to lower-volume harm-reduction and wide-scale testing/treatment programs. Without doubt, current AIDS efforts must include equitable and widely accessible detection and treatment plans such as those touted by Baldwin -- along with the social support required for their implementation.

Yet as we enter a moment of self-reflection this World AIDS Day, we must not forget that on every medical, cultural and economic level, keeping folks negative remains the most effective way to contain the epidemic. This is the message AIDS Silence squanders -- a confounding, challenging and never more crucial message.

There is no doubt that the larger inequalities faced by American GLBTs -- from homophobia to violence to workplace discrimination -- contribute to the perniciousness of HIV within the community. And accordingly, along with cries to repeal DOMA and Don't Ask/Don't Tell, GLBT leaders need to add AIDS to their anti-Obama battle cries. As he promised during his candidacy, Pres. Obama must be demanded to make HIV a priority. Equally as crucial, the LGBT must lead by example and re-embrace the AIDS crisis once again, as well.

Law-makers such as Baldwin are already half-way there, but half measures always avail us nothing. As long as leaders like Baldwin -- whom we approached numerous times to explain her video omission -- continue to treat AIDS as some great unmentionable, no amount of legislating with keep the disease in check. AIDS Silence might serve some short-term political agenda. But as a disease that literally looms for decades, there is nothing short-term about the consequences of HIV.

"Gay men are paying the price of this silence," Senterfitt says. "New infection rates have declined in women and IV drug users, but they continue to rise in Gay men. It's not a sharp, not a steep rise -- but the rise is certainly steady."