Just a few hours ago, among hundreds of young activists committed to fighting HIV and AIDS, we announced the creation of -- and called on the U.S. government to officially recognize -- National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day.
This week, political leaders, health experts and government representatives join advocates from around the globe here in Washington, D.C., for the 19th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012). But even as high profile leaders like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make news at this conference, there is another part of the story that needs to be told. We need to take a close look at the current reality of HIV and AIDS -- and that means listening to, involving and prioritizing young people.
When I was 17 years old, I found out I was HIV-positive. I know first-hand what it feels like to face discrimination from peers and even from my teachers. I remember the fear of rejection, and the incredible love and support I found among my family and friends. I had to face the stark choice between continuing to receive government support for my HIV medication, or taking a new job where my health care wouldn't cover my treatment because HIV was considered a preexisting condition. As a young, Black gay man, this is my story.
In fact, in the United States a young black gay man has nearly a one in four chance of becoming infected by age 25. This was my story, but I am only one of the many diverse faces of HIV. Around the world, young people make up 40 percent of new HIV infections. Despite these harsh realities, young people are taking extraordinary measures to stem the tide of HIV and AIDS and are determined to end this pandemic once and for all. Since the day I first learned my HIV status, I have made it my personal responsibility to fight this disease until we reach an AIDS-free generation. I know many young people out there feel the same.
The creation of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day is a momentous step towards acknowledging and addressing the needs of young people in the HIV and AIDS response. Each year, young activists in high schools and at universities across the country will use this day to organize and educate about HIV and AIDS. They will promote HIV testing, fight stigma and start the necessary and uncomfortable conversations we need to deal honestly and effectively with the challenges we face. Perhaps most importantly, it will provide a recurring, yearly date for young activists to hold our leaders accountable for their commitment to, and investment in, truly realizing an AIDS-free generation.
My generation is the first to never know a world without HIV and AIDS. But we will be the generation that will help the world believe in and achieve a future where this epidemic is only a memory. There are thousands of educated, smart and resourceful young people attending this year's International AIDS Conference. But, which world leaders, scientists, and policymakers will be bold enough to reach out to young people, to listen to them, and to address the social, political and structural changes necessary to reach them?
Young people know that we cannot settle for a short-term, politically-safe response to HIV and AIDS. We can't get to an AIDS-free generation unless we acknowledge that young people have the right to accurate and complete sexual health information and confidential, affordable health care services; that we deserve respect -- and a seat at the table -- for the role we are playing to end the pandemic; and that the government and our society has the responsibility to ensure that all young people are provided with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual and reproductive health.
Just a year ago, President Obama made his speech on World AIDS Day. Many people remember his bold declaration that with steady commitment we can achieve an "AIDS free generation." What I remember from his speech is something different. The president said that even though no country has done more to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS at home and abroad, "we cannot be complacent."
Well, we're not going to be complacent, Mr. President. Young people are not going to stand on the sidelines as this disease ravages our communities, our loved ones or our futures. As young people, we declare April 10 National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day. We call on President Obama, Congress and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to officially recognize National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day as an important, tangible step towards realizing the dream of an AIDS-free generation. We can realize this dream. We must. We will.
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