Opinion: Let’s remember that HIV is still here

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Cameron Gorman

When you think of the word HIV, what comes to mind? ACT UP in the ‘90s? Leather vests and pink triangles? Grainy protest footage and political funerals? You’d be right, in a way. That is the history of the movement surrounding HIV, at least parts of it. But do you also picture today, everyday scenes of prescriptions and symptom management? Because that’s it, too. Contrary to those faded memories, HIV/AIDS is not a problem of the past, but a continuing issue with widespread ramifications — however removed from them we might feel.

This summer, during my internship, I’ve been working heavily with POZ magazine. Founded in 1994, the publication deals with “life, health and HIV,” and includes profiles, features, treatment news and more. When it was first started, people still didn’t fully understand how to best treat HIV. The magazine was and still is a community resource and space for advocacy.

Recently, we published Mark S. King’s “The Truth About the 7,000,” an article which shone a spotlight on the yearly 7,000 deaths of those “who die of causes directly attributable to the virus every year in the United States.” The public response was huge, eliciting both impassioned thank-yous and critiques. For someone like me, who had come into the company as an intern, the wave of interaction was a point of learning. We publish columns on the regular, and this was what had garnered 2.3K likes on Facebook. This was what intrigued our readers.

Maybe it’s because, as King mentioned in the article, the concept of HIV has received something of a makeover recently — being marched about in parades, for example — but this isn’t without reason. In the media, at least, and in popular culture, what’s known is that it’s now possible to live a long, healthy life while living with HIV. PrEP makes it possible to protect yourself before contracting the virus, too. Of course, these types of help aren’t available to everyone. But they’re being made more visible. King burrows down to the root of the problem with quality in his blog, as well as to the notion that mental health, socioeconomic status, stigma and more can all contribute to the decision to stop taking medication.

But, from my greenhorn-intern perspective, there’s another aspect to this issue as well. People my age — people who weren’t even alive when the first wave of HIV devastated the nation — might not even remember that HIV is a serious disease that still very much exists. From my own experience on the tangled and often-dark corners of the web, jokes about AIDS among young people are rarely met with more than a few sidelong glances. It’s the type of edgy humor that usually doesn’t garner many laughs, but is an expected part of the margins of the internet. Maybe that’s because it seems like a far-off thing. The wincing “dude, too soon” reactions might not spring to mind. Instead, it seems, HIV is the exhibition at the Whitney with posters from the ‘90s. It’s the Keith Haring art on T-shirts. It’s the past — except it’s not.

In 2016, UNAIDS says, 36.7 million people globally were living with HIV, with 1.8 million people newly contracting HIV. And, to drive King’s point home, people are still dying. For those of us who are too young to remember the midst of the U.S. crisis (or who weren’t yet born), HIV and AIDS can seem like something from yesteryear.

To some, it might even seem like something you can’t get anymore, or something you can’t get because of who you are. That was the perception, it seems, among a lot of people in the beginning. They thought children couldn’t get it, or women, or white people. Nothing could be further from the truth. HIV, unlike some people, doesn’t discriminate, it’s often said.

HIV is still something dealt with by millions on a day to day basis. It can affect anyone, and it still does. Sure, HIV activism is often looked back upon as something of a museum artifact by some. But, through my work at POZ and my time here, I have been immersed in what is very much a living culture of standing up for those living with HIV, full of art and activism and need. Yes, even in a world where treatment has been drastically improved for many — because although that’s true, there’s still no cure.

One of the first days that I was working at my internship, I was talking to my coworker in the conference room of our eighth-floor office building. We were discussing the early days of the magazine, including what it was like to work here back when the prognosis for HIV wasn’t so rosy. He told me about one of their covers, one I had glimpsed from the archives, a stark black background around a shroud of white and a man’s face. His eyes were closed. The man, Stephen Gendin, who’d written for the magazine, had died. Someone had rushed over to the morgue to get his photo. They’d put it right on the cover, one of four circulating tributes to his life and death. Wow, I remember thinking. It was a different time then. Maybe I was trying to convince myself.

Cameron Gorman is an opinion columnist. Reach her at [email protected]