Is there another disease in America as politicized and as polarizing as HIV/AIDS?
It's about sex and drugs, it's about race and class and homophobia -- the very things that we, as a society, grapple with every day. No wonder then that the story of AIDS in America, nearly 30 years after we first heard of the disease, is really the story of American identity itself. Or, more to the point, the story of America's underclass as seen through a virus.
That's especially the case in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, whose HIV/AIDS rate is greater than or equal to some African countries. "Our rates are higher than West Africa," Shannon L. Hader, director of the city's HIV/AIDS Administration, famously said, making headlines worldwide. "They're on par with Uganda and some parts of Kenya." When I first started reporting on the issue in 2003 -- as a summer intern for The Washington Post -- I discovered that the rate of new AIDS cases in D.C. was, at the time, higher than New York, San Francisco and Baltimore. Lack of access to health care in the capital city was one of the reasons. By the time a D.C. resident tested for HIV, he or she already had AIDS, the later stage of the disease.
Six years later, after millions in federal and local funds had been spent in prevention and care, the city's HIV/AIDS Administration reported that at least 3 percent of District residents are living with HIV or AIDS. That's a particularly striking figure for two reasons. First, it far surpasses the 1 percent threshold that constitutes a "generalized and severe epidemic," as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Second, it provides an alarming historical context. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the city announced that 4 percent of its population was HIV positive. That was in 1992, when longtime AIDS activist Larry Kramer's autobiographical play "The Destiny of Me" burned the New York stage, its main character, Ned Weeks, most memorably asking, "What do you do when you're dying from a disease you need not be dying from?"
AIDS in America was part of the national consciousness then.
And not to take away from the heartbreak and devastation of AIDS in Africa, in southeast Asia, in Latin America -- in all corners of the globe, especially in the developing world -- AIDS in America, in our own backyard, must be part of the national consciousness now.
The numbers speak for themselves. A recent study of 500 gay men in Washington. D.C. found that 14 percent are HIV-positive. As of December 2008 in New York City, a little more than 50 percent of new HIV and AIDS infections were among African Americans, and new HIV infections were highest among those ages 20 to 29 and and 30 to 39, according to the New York City Department of Health. Across the country, every nine and a half minutes someone in the U.S. is being infected with HIV, reports the CDC. And AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25 to 34. In 2010. In the Age of Michelle Obama.
But numbers and statistics, as James Baldwin once said, hide as much as they reveal. In seven years of reporting on AIDS in Washington, D.C. -- and, by extension, AIDS in America -- my goal has always been to feature the voices and faces of everyday people infected with the disease. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Gays, straights, transgenders. Of all ages, from various backgrounds. That was the mission of A Living HIV Quilt, which was part of a year-long Washington Post series that I wrote in 2006, on the 25th year of the AIDS epidemic.
Now those articles and the quilt have inspired a 90-minute feature length documentary, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival next week. It's called "The Other City" -- in every city, there's another city, and this is the Washington, D.C. that people and tourists barely see. Or recognize. The title also speaks to the perception of AIDS in America nearly 30 years after we first heard of it. Oh, AIDS has nothing to do with me -- it's gay people, it's black people, it's minorities, it's "The Other People" who get it anyway. It's directed by Susan Koch, a long-time D.C. resident and documentary filmmaker. Our producer is Sheila C. Johnson, the multifaceted businesswoman and philanthropist who's lived in the D.C. area for many years. I wrote the film and co-produced it.
Watch the trailer of the documentary below. You can find more information on our website, follow us on Twitter and be a fan of our Facebook page. Additional screening information at the Tribeca Film Festival can be found here.
Follow Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joseiswriting