THE BLOG

Silence Still Equals Death

06/25/2010 10:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jim Pickett Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men's Health, AIDS Foundation of Chicago

Dear Friends of the LGBT community,

As a gay man living with HIV, I am feeling really conflicted during this month of LGBT Pride. I know I am supposed to be awash in warm, fuzzy feelings of pride and joy, and that I should have lots of parties and the big parade on my agenda.

But you know what? Not so much.

While curmudgeon is becoming more and more an apt description of yours truly, and while I applaud the community's herculean efforts around important issues such as marriage equality and repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I have noticed over the last several years that one issue in particular gets a collective "ho, hum, been there, done that." And that issue is HIV.

You only have to say the letters H-I-V or A-I-D-S and you get a yawn and an eye roll -- all of a sudden you are standing alone at the vegetable dip. The epidemic has been with us for 29 years now -- it isn't hard to see why people are just plain over it and want to move on. But you know what? That is a luxury none of us can afford, sorry.

The majority of new HIV infections in this country -- new HIV infections -- are among gay, bi and other men who have sex with men (53%). Rates of HIV infection among gay men are more than 44 times higher than rates among heterosexual men and more than 40 times higher than women. We are the only demographic in which HIV infections are rising (nearly 29,000 new infections in 2006). Gay men of all colors are impacted -- but black and Latino gay men bear the brunt. In Chicago, approximately one in three gay black men is infected, one in eight Latinos. In fact, a five-city study in 2005 showed that almost half of all gay black men were infected -- half. These numbers, numbers that rival the very worst HIV epidemics occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, are an outrage.

But did you have any inkling of how bad it was?

Each one of these numbers is one of us -- another gay man. Is it you? Is it a friend? Is it someone who hasn't told you their status for fear of the stigma, discrimination, and shunning that still exist?

During this last week of Pride, I implore you to "Do Ask, Do Tell" regarding HIV/AIDS in the gay community. If you are already on this train, thank you. If not, hop on. We need the passion, creativity, strength, and resilience of all gay men and their allies, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative. We need to own this issue again. We need to ask, loudly, why we are so disproportionately impacted but largely neglected in government funding, and demand solutions. We need to tell -- yell -- our stories.

It may sound like ancient history -- but "silence equals death" is as valid today as it was during the late 80's and early 90's when many of us lost all of our friends to this nasty, brutish disease. We are getting infected at increasing rates, many of us are not learning of our status until we have advance HIV or full-blown AIDS, and too many don't have access to the care and treatment that would keep us well.

So, first, we need to hold ourselves accountable for our silence on the issue of HIV. Second, we need to hold those in power accountable for their inaction. The people we elect to positions of power, and the people they appoint to positions that directly impact our lives, need to hear from us today, tomorrow and every single day after until we stop the madness of half of young gay black men becoming infected with HIV.

You can start right now. Even as you read this, Governor Pat Quinn is carving up the Illinois state budget, and his decisions will have life-or-death implications for gay men living with and at risk for HIV. He alone can determine whether programs we need to survive and stay healthy or die. We need to tell him that the second option is not acceptable.

It is not unlikely that Illinois could see a waiting list for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program -- a critical resource many of us rely on to help us afford the medications we need. People die on waiting lists. Will it be you? A friend?

Funding cuts to HIV prevention programs will shortchange gay men, who have the greatest need for, but least access to, prevention services. The programs are already struggling; without adequate funding, more gay men of all colors will get infected. Maybe you? A friend?

Tell Governor Quinn that a budget that throws us under the proverbial bus will not be tolerated.

And, please, continue to take action. We can't stand up for our country if we are too sick to stand. We can't get married if we're already at the "death do us part" business. HIV/AIDS is the issue of every single gay man, and every single one of our smart, compassionate, fabulous voices is needed to reinvigorate the fight.

Happy Pride.