Marching Orders For...
AIDS sucks. If I could put a condom on every dick in Seattle, I would. If I could stop it every time someone snorts, shoots, or bumps meth, I would. If I could end the "down low" in the African-American community, I would. (And by the way, every community has its down low—it's called in the closet.) But I can't make people behave. I can only tell them that individuals and communities have choices—and that we all live with the consequences of those choices.
Twenty-five years ago AIDS forced us to do something we had not done before: create a united, out, and visible queer community. Dykes, fags and our straight allies came together to challenge homophobia, the health-care system, politicians, and each other. We changed the debate, we changed the laws, and we changed the culture. We were not polite then, and we need to stop being so damn polite now.
An AIDS vaccine is at least 20 years away. In the meantime here's what the queer community can do:
1. Drop the stigma.
The queer community is great at discriminating against itself; we can be a pretty bitchy group. Just ask anyone in the transgender movement. When it comes to AIDS it's no different. There are no bad gays or good gays, there are just gays. If we leave it to the conservatives they will keep dividing us until there is no one left. We've got to end our own discrimination about what it means to be HIV-positive and how someone was infected. It could happen to any of us.
2. Tell the truth.
Negotiate for safe sex and demand to know what you're getting into. In the bedroom, don't use your manners. Ask about HIV and STDs before being asked. Protect yourself. Wear a condom. And whether you're positive or negative, disclose your status. When a guy tells you he's positive, show respect. If you freak out, it's unlikely he will be honest with the next person. If a guy tells you he's negative, respect his desire to play safely.
3. Know the reality.
There is no cure for AIDS. People are still dying. HIV/AIDS might be manageable, but it's not pretty. Ignore drug company ads that make living with AIDS seem like getting over a cold. After an AIDS diagnosis it's unlikely you'll be hanging out at the beach with a group of male models in tight swimsuits. Drugs now average $1,400 a month, and 85 percent of the people we serve at Lifelong live on less than $15,000 per year. Instead of celebrating, you'll likely be worried about choosing between paying for housing, food, or prescriptions—and finding the nearest toilet for your nausea.
4. Blame the AIDS agencies. Then fund them.
Some from the queer community blame the AIDS agencies for not being aggressive enough. To an extent, that's true. Our funding, the majority being from the government, comes with strings attached that limit our work. Yet we're also the ones in the bathhouses and bars reaching those most at risk. We're the ones who don't write people off. Unleash us to do the work we want to do. Write your check every month just like the religious right tithes to their megachurches. If you fund us, we can cut the strings. Then hold us accountable and demand that we do our best.
5. Take responsibility.
If you're positive, you have the moral responsibility to not infect anyone else. When you have sex, disclose your status and use a condom. If you're negative, you have the moral responsibility to take care of yourself to stay that way. Learn what's safe and what's not. Ask questions. Use a condom.
It's everyone's moral responsibility to make our government fund effective AIDS prevention and care. Remember Ryan White? The funding he bravely fought for is being stripped away. Visit www.llaa.org to tell your elected officials to put up or shut up.
Get tested. Disclose your status. Get tested again. Urge your friends to get tested. Support them when they do and complain when they don't.
I don't want anyone to stop having sex. I want you to have it safely and on your terms. I want you to end this disease. I want you to provoke, offend, educate, demand, and give.
And I want you to put a condom on because I can't do it for you. ■
Tina Podlodowski is the executive director of Lifelong AIDS Alliance, the largest HIV/AIDS organization in the Pacific Northwest. She is a former member of the Seattle City Council and a former Microsoft executive.