07/16/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Second Chance to Do It Right

No doubt the topic of conversation at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, will be "key populations." In other words, how do we reach those at greatest risk for infection -- men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers.

These have always been the people at greatest risk. They have been the most ignored, stigmatized, marginalized, dehumanized and politicized. The world has made great progress in slowing transmission among the general population in high prevalence countries, but it has made shockingly little progress among key populations.

Here we are, decades in, discussing a focus on key populations, as if it were new. As we head back to the future, we have a second chance to do right by people. Yes, people. People with names. People with loved ones -- not simply those defined by what they do, or by more polite and tolerable words like "key."

In the past 20 years, I have heard countless politicians and high-level government officials give impassioned speeches about the exemplary corporate response to the AIDS epidemic and the impressive scale of the U.S. government's response. There have been numerous awards recognizing the media and people like Elizabeth Taylor, who fought for the world's attention when AIDS was nothing more than "gay cancer."

The accolades are well-deserved.

But with a very few notable exceptions from people like Michel Sidibé, few have publicly and repeatedly acknowledged the gay community for the lonely, devastating fight for answers and action that formed the world's response. We've heard even less about people who inject drugs and sex workers.

Where are the accolades for them?

It's not been politically expedient, nor particularly popular to talk about the people most of society would rather forget.

Things are slowly changing for the LGBT community, but there is still little empathy for people who inject drugs and sex workers. It still plays much better on Main Street to talk about 'innocent victims.' The irony is not lost considering that Uganda, Nigeria and other countries with repressive anti-LGBT laws are directly benefiting from funding, prevention efforts and medicines fought for by the gay community in the early days of AIDS.

As we make our way to Melbourne, and we have the chance to hit the reset button, let's do it right. Let's make the best of this opportunity to talk less about key populations and talk more about people, dignity and basic human rights.