Many of us working in AIDS didn't see this coming, but GMHC announced last week that their long-serving CEO, Dr. Marjorie Hill, would be stepping down, effective in just two weeks. They titled their press release "A New Direction for GMHC."
We can only hope.
Will GMHC seize this moment to become a highly visible leader in preventing HIV infections in New York City? Will it become obvious to gay men that Gay Men's Health Crisis cares about them again?
I'm not saying they don't care about gay men. I know plenty of folks who work there, and they care a lot. But once you leave their hard-to-get-to headquarters, it's difficult to tell. I can't tell you how many gay men I know who feel that GMHC is no longer on the community's radar.
If this were just a visibility problem, it could be easily fixed. Rates of HIV infection show that we are failing the city's gay men, especially our young gay men, and especially our young gay men of color.
Almost 1,800 gay men become HIV-positive each year in New York City. While this number has been relatively stable for the last decade, it masks a significant rise among young gay men, which started shooting up in 2004 and has stayed at these higher levels since.
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Compared with national rates, our city's record on protecting gay men is a disgrace. Dr. Alan Neaigus et al. from the HIV Epidemiology and Field Services Program at the New York City Department of Health published a report last year that analyzed the rate of new HIV infections among gay men in NYC. They looked at HIV prevalence data collected by the CDC in 2008. Their results were off the charts: They found that 5.67 percent of our city's gay men were becoming HIV-positive each year. When looking at just black gay men, the number was 12 percent a year!
These estimates are most probably very high given the sampling bias of the underlying CDC data (they recruit participants from "gay venues," mostly bars), but when you compare them with the same stats nationally, New York City looks tragic. Looking at the same 2008 data from 21 U.S. cities, the CDC estimated that 2.9 percent of young gay men were becoming infected every year. While it's always tricky comparing estimates from two studies, they point to New York City doing far worse than the national average.
And the national story for gay men is shameful. We only represent about 4 percent of the population, but we currently account for 63 percent of new HIV infections. Why isn't this considered a crisis, folks?
We need to remember the "GM" and "C" in "GMHC" while not lowering our guard in our fight for black women, IVDUs, trans women, and other at-risk groups. We need to replicate Philadelphia's amazing program that offers free condoms to teens in the mail or with a mobile app locator. We need to bring HIV testing to where young gay men are rather that waiting for them to show up to the far reaches of West 33rd Street. We need to advertise PrEP and PEP, pills that can be taken before or after sex to prevent HIV infection.
None of this will be easy or cheap. There are no magic bullets in this fight. But I recognize stagnation when I see it, and GMHC has been looking stagnant for far too long. It's time for GMHC to lead.