New AIDS campaign is just the beginning

Editor's Note

In this issue, Q-Notes reports on the new HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness campaign unveiled by the White House Office of AIDS Policy and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Dubbed “Act Against AIDS,” the first phase of the campaign proclaims what government experts hope will be a powerful, yet simple message: “Every 91⁄2 minutes someone in the U.S. is infected with HIV.”

The campaign will be rolled out in stages, reaching target audiences such as African-Americans; gays, bisexuals and men who have sex with men (MSM); and Latinos. In the first phase of the campaign, federal officials will work with 14 national African-American organizations in a leadership initiative in which each organization will receive money to help raise prevention awareness.

Act Against AIDS deserves to be applauded, to some degree. The campaign marks the first time in almost two decades that the federal government has funded a national, domestic HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention effort. Under the Obama Administration, the Office of AIDS Policy has also been made a part of the White House Office of Domestic Policy. The promotion ensures that Obama’s promise to deliver a national AIDS policy is at least in the works.

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But the Act Against AIDS campaign isn’t perfect. In fact, I think the campaign — or what we’ve seen of it — will be weak and ineffective. Likely, it won’t have a big enough impact to reach the populations most responsible for HIV/AIDS and those at the highest risk of contracting it. Most notably, the campaign will likely fail with gay, bi and MSM men, who represent more than half of all new HIV infections nationwide.

It is no secret that gay, bi and MSM men carry the burden of this disease. For years, transmission rates among this population has skyrocketed. At the same time, the government ignored the crisis and left prevention and awareness efforts up to LGBT community organizations. In most instances, community groups have done a superb job at getting the messages out to gay and bi men of all ages. Perhaps the message has gotten out too well. Since the early 1990s, the LGBT community has been absolutely inundated and saturated with safe sex messages.

Use a condom, pretty please. Use a condom, pretty please. Use a condom, pretty please.

How many times can you say the same thing over and over again and it still have an effect? Not for very long. Barebacking and other unsafe, risky sexual behaviors are making a comeback in the gay, bi and MSM populations, after years of decline following the harrowing AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Young gay, bi and MSM men — those in their mid-to-late 20s and younger — have never experienced the death-filled culture that for so long defined the gay and bi male communities. To young guys getting it on with other guys, HIV is just another STD, something that can be controlled, something they can live with.

No one tells these young men about the side effects of AIDS meds; pharmaceutical companies surely aren’t going to picture the real life of a person with HIV or AIDS in their glossy and sexy magazine advertisements. Young men don’t see the vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. They don’t see the weight loss and facial wasting. They don’t see the effects of opportunistic viruses, colds or other ailments.

Telling gay, bi and MSM men that someone in the U.S. is infected with HIV every nine-and-a-half minutes isn’t something these men don’t know. Gay men already know about HIV and many of them know people who have it. What’s more, many of these men see no way they’ll escape it, so why try?

“If I’m going to end up with it anyway, why wait?” That’s what more and more young gay men are thinking and feeling, says Jacquelyn Clymore, executive director of the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina in Raleigh.

Young gay, bi and MSM men have grown up in a world that tells them their sex is bad, their love valueless, their bodies sick and diseased. Getting HIV is just icing on the already STD-filled, self-loathing, culture-killing cake.

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To be fair to the CDC and other Act Against AIDS officials: The campaign hasn’t been fully unveiled. They say the first phase is meant only to refocus the national attention on the crisis — to reach those in the general population who aren’t aware and don’t think about HIV/AIDS.

But the CDC is going to have to try harder, think smarter and come up with more effective messages when it comes time to target gay, bi and MSM men. If they don’t, we’ll find millions of dollars wasted, HIV/AIDS rates still rising and more deaths in the gay community.

For our part, gay, bi and MSM men need to wake the hell up. Strong language, I know, but it is time to stop pussyfooting around the issues. A large part of the HIV/AIDS crisis could end with two words: Personal Responsibility.

Dan O’Neill, chair of the HIV Prevention Working Group of the Washington, D.C., LGBT Community Center, recently wrote on DC.Bilerico.com that gay, bi and MSM men need to start taking more of that personal responsibility when it comes to sex and health.

“‘You been tested?’ said in the breathless throes of getting it on, will no longer suffice,” he wrote. “We need to follow up with: ‘When were you last tested?’ and ‘How many people have you had sex with since?’… ‘What types of sex have you had?’… ‘Did you use a condom?’…‘Did you know the serostatus of those sexual partners?’… etc. And we need to answer those questions honestly.”

And, for Christ’s sake, stop downing so much alcohol, drop the needle and pills and put a damn condom on.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.

One Reply to “New AIDS campaign is just the beginning”

  1. What makes this even harder is that promoting safer sex has to be combined with reducing what public health folks call the “background prevalence” of HIV. It isn’t that the disparities between groups are because of differences in sexual behavior, it’s that the proportion of already existing cases of HIV is higher in some communities (due to all kinds of healthcare access and economic reasons) and thus the risk of transmission is higher. Until those problems are addressed, media campaigns will do little to reduce disparities between sexual minority men, racial/ethnic groups, and straight folks.

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