In reflecting on the past 30 years since HIV and AIDS entered our vocabulary, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Thirty years ago, an HIV infection was often followed with serious illnesses and, in many cases, swift death. Today, medications and greater awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS result in better quality and longer lives — at least, for those who know their status and have access to those medications and medical care.
However, much of the misunderstanding and stigma associated with HIV has not changed.
Early in the pandemic, the predecessors of Resource Center Dallas took legal action so that persons with HIV could receive care at the public county hospital, which was denying life-saving treatment for pneumocystis pneumonia, an opportunistic infection and leading killer of those who had HIV. Stigma and fear created bias and prejudice toward those needing care — primarily gay men — at that time.
Regretfully, fear, stigma and ignorance remain rampant today. We must speak frankly about a disease whose cause is now known and whose progression can be controlled. Many in the GLBT community have lost dozens of friends to the disease, yet 65 percent of new infections in Dallas County are among men who have sex with men.
As a community, what are we doing to stem the tide of new infections? How are we taking care of one another?
AIDS activist Larry Kramer was eviscerated in the 1990s when he screamed that the LGBT community must take responsibility for its own health and change unsafe sexual behavior. Wasn’t he right?
We now know HIV cannot be transmitted by a mosquito, a hug, a drinking glass or from a cough. We know it is transmitted by direct contact with infected blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk.
We can talk safe sex, but preventing HIV is not that simple. We also must create an environment where people who are at risk of engaging in unsafe sexual behavior have alternatives. Many factors play into decisions that lead to unsafe sex: lack of knowledge, low self-esteem, drug use, fatigue from worrying about HIV, inability to afford condoms and — again — fear and stigma that scare us away from talking about sex and HIV.
Resource Center Dallas is one of many organizations committed to addressing these issues. We provide mental health counseling so that those dealing with self-esteem, fear, depression or other concerns can receive support, regardless of their HIV status.
Additionally, we offer some of the leading HIV prevention programs in Texas targeting those at the greatest risk: FUSE, U-BE and C3 — programs that empower participants to make better decisions and take responsibility for their behavior.
And, as a leading LGBT community center, we provide community and a safe place to gather and get involved in programs, events and volunteer opportunities.
We all have a role: Let’s talk honestly about health and sex, to our partners, friends and children.
HIV is not someone else’s problem. As community, let’s act up to end HIV infections.
Cece Cox is executive director and CEO of Resource Center Dallas.