World AIDS Day is a time for us to consider the state of the epidemic and the challenges we must overcome to achieve a world without AIDS. It's a time to reflect on the fact that we ALL have a role to play in ending this disease. And one of the most important ways we can stop AIDS in its tracks is simply by fighting stigma and homophobia.
This World AIDS Day nearly coincides with the 20th anniversary of the death of my dear friend, Freddie Mercury. If Freddie were alive today he would feel very much as I do. He'd be astonished by how far we've come in treating and preventing HIV/AIDS since the frightening and tragic early days of the epidemic. But he'd also be saddened and dismayed to see that rampant stigma and homophobia continue to drive this disease.
The devastating impact of discrimination against gay people and people living with HIV are clearly reflected in the alarming incidence of HIV/AIDS in the gay community. In American cities, as many as one out of every five gay and bisexual men is HIV-positive, and half of those infected are unaware they have the disease. Indeed, HIV prevalence in our community is on par with some of the hardest hit regions of the developing world. Also, new HIV infections are actually on the rise among gay and bisexual men -- the only risk group in America for which this is the case.
Clearly, we must do more, MUCH more, to reduce the incidence of HIV among gay and bisexual men, and that work has to begin within our community. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, we rose up with our straight allies, claimed for ourselves equal rights and equal value as human beings, and demanded solutions for a health crisis that affected not just the gay community but every population across the globe. And it WORKED! HIV rates among gay men declined dramatically by the late 1980s, and we can be justifiably proud of our efforts then.
But today's statistics show that we have stalled in our drive against this disease. We've dropped our guard and become complacent, and in that void, AIDS is thriving in our community once again.
Today, on World AIDS Day 2011, I'm ringing the alarm bell. We must WAKE UP! There are three immediate challenges before us, and we have to address them NOW!
First, we must help our young people to combat the many negative messages our society still flings at gay people. We have to teach gay men to love and accept themselves, to value and protect their health and the health of others, and to join the campaign for our equal rights as human beings. We cannot be silent or invisible. The old slogan "Silence = Death" is every bit as relevant today as it was in the 1980s. Homophobia can be neutralized by familiarity and experience and compassion. Stigma can be eradicated by courage and pride and unity. We can begin to end AIDS when we empower ourselves.
Second, we must take responsibility for our own health and well-being. We must get tested and retested. Too many of us do not know our HIV status, and that MUST change.
Third, we must not let our federal and state governments balance their budgets by cutting crucial funding for HIV prevention, treatment, and research. Reducing or eliminating HIV programming today will cost us much MORE money down the road. That's because these investments pay for themselves in terms of infections prevented, health preserved, and lives saved. Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health released a groundbreaking study demonstrating conclusively that people living with HIV who receive effective antiretroviral treatments are 96 percent LESS likely to pass the disease to their sexual partners. In other words, HIV treatment IS prevention. Therefore, we should be INCREASING funding for HIV treatment programs, not implementing cuts, as many states are doing today.
We have all of the tools we need to stop this epidemic in its tracks. Working together, I believe my little son Zachary and his generation can live to see a future without AIDS. But to get there, we have serious work to do. We must fight stigma, homophobia, and apathy. We must learn to love and value our lives and our health. We must be honest in our own relationships. We must get serious about the risky behaviors that have become commonplace once again in our community, and the negative messages that encourage this behavior. We must acknowledge the dangerous substances that are known drivers of infection. We must demand health funding.
But more than anything, we must educate and mobilize young people to join the fight not only AGAINST the AIDS epidemic, but also FOR health and acceptance and love. On this World AIDS Day, let us spread messages of tolerance and compassion that are so critical to ending AIDS.
Sir Elton John is the Founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). EJAF supports innovative HIV prevention programs, efforts to eliminate stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS, and direct care and support services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Since 1992, EJAF has raised over $220 million in support of projects in 55 countries around the world. Learn more at www.ejaf.org.