Lisner Shines Light on HIV/AIDS

Despite obstacles, activists see hope in the fight against the epidemic

By John Riley
Published on August 2, 2012, 3:59am | Comments

Speaking at ''Return to Lisner,'' a community event held July 24 in the midst of the XIX International AIDS Conference –and serving as both a memorial to those who lost their lives to HIV/AIDS and a remembrance of Washington's first public forum on AIDS, held April 4, 1983 – a panel of six activists, some HIV-positive, updated the audience of more than 500 on the status of scientific advances, testing, treatment and outreach within the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The Whitman-Walker Health event included a performance by the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, D.C., and a keynote address by Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac-turned activist who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion in 1984, for whom the nation's largest federally funded program to treat people with HIV/AIDS is named.

Following White-Ginder's speech, moderator Tom Sherwood of local TV station NBC4 gruffly questioned the panelists about the promise of an ''AIDS-free generation'' made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other speakers at AIDS 2012, asking, ''Is hope justified?''

''Hope is always justified,'' responded A. Cornelius Baker, senior communications advisor and project director at nonprofit FHI360's Center on AIDS and Community Health and a senior advisor for the National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition.

''It's amazing how survival instinct interweaves with hope,'' said Regan Hofmann, editor-in-chief of Poz magazine. She told Sherwood and the audience that achieving an AIDS-free generation is possible, but that it requires both political and social will to push through initiatives that can effectively prevent and reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS.

For instance, Hofmann, who is HIV-positive, shared that many youth she talks to are unaware of how the disease is transmitted, asking her questions such as whether she can have sex. She said that such ignorance is the result of parents refusing or being unable to sufficiently educate their children about the disease.

''Parents would not send their children out not knowing how to drive, yet they allow them to go out without knowing anything of biology,'' she said.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS (MTA), said it is not just children who are unaware. He recalled serving with some MTA volunteers on a phone bank at the local Fox affiliate, answering questions about HIV/AIDS and refuting claims from callers that, for example, the virus can be spread through kissing.

''They were the same questions that people had 30 years ago,'' Tenner said. ''And these were adults, not teens calling in.''

The panelists touched on a number of other issues, including outreach to vulnerable populations, the prospect of hope for a cure or vaccine and the complicity of the media in failing to inform the general public, perhaps due to ''AIDS fatigue.''

In a follow-up interview after the event, Baker addressed the problem of ''AIDS fatigue,'' which he attributed to the need for more education about the disease in order to reduce the stigma surrounding it, particularly in sexual education classes, which he said need to become more innovative to effectively get the message across.

''The statement, 'Everyone knows how you get HIV,' you don't see that approach to lung cancer or obesity,'' Baker said.

Baker also stressed the need to address the fact that the disease still disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men. He said that refusing to acknowledge that was a ''subtle form of homophobia.''