It's About More Than Red Ribbon

By Todd Heywood

It's World AIDS Day. On this day, we join together as a community to remember the losses, celebrate the successes and support those living with the virus.

But this year we find ourselves at a truly momentous point in history. What we do about HIV in the next year will define the outcome of the epidemic in Michigan and the U.S. for years to come. We can make this about ending this dreadful epidemic, challenging arcane and discriminatory laws and supporting our brothers and sisters who are infected, affected and effected by the epidemic, or we can turn the page on the calendar and pretend like HIV is nothing to worry about until next year on Dec. 1.

To reach the historic challenges of putting an end to new HIV infections, we here at Between The Lines ask you to post the red ribbon on your Facebook page and other social media sites - but leave them up for the next month. This, however, is the first step in a series of tangible actions we need you to take to help end the epidemic as we know it. Here are our ideas, and our reasoning:

- Donate to your local AIDS service organization. We know, we know. Everyone wants money at this time of the year. But the reality is that ASOs in Michigan have been forced to do more with less for years and by the end of 2013, federal funding for prevention services will be reduced by 33 percent. And that's before any decisions have been made on the looming fiscal cliff. Our ASOs need your financial support to provide prevention services, support services for those living with HIV and to be a voice for HIV in the community. So, make a donation. Not just for some special event like AIDS Walk, either. Agree to make a monthly donation. Maybe it's $5 a month, maybe it's $100 a month. It doesn't matter how much, every penny literally helps to save lives.

- Start talking about HIV. Seems silly to have to tell a community where 1 in 5 gay and bisexual men is infected with the virus - and 44 percent of those who are infected didn't know it until the study was done in 2010 - to talk about HIV; but the facts are sobering. The epidemic in Michigan, as it is nationally, is striking our youth and particularly our youth of color. Young gay and bisexual men are coming out younger, but facing an educational environment which does not provide basic HIV education that is culturally appropriate for LGBT youth. That means we have to have those conversations. And we have to do it in a sex positive way. Let's get real, gay and bi men are barebacking. It's happening. There are whole websites dedicated to it. The question is, why is it a taboo subject? Why aren't we talking about the reason gay and bi men are barebacking? Let's have that conversation. For real, and in earnest.

- Get tested. One in five gay and bisexual men is positive. Nearly half them don't know it. We know that those who are positive, but don't know it, are more likely to transmit their virus to others. We also know that being diagnosed early leads to healthier long term outcomes for people living with the virus and a decrease in infectiousness. That's not pie in sky thinking, those are scientific facts. Testing is not just a personal responsibility, it is a community obligation.

- Stop the stigma. We've all seen it. The personal ads that read "Clean, U B 2." The writer is not talking about hygiene, they are talking about HIV. It's a code. It's demoralizing and offensive and it is time to end it. We have run whole campaigns to stop people from saying "That's so gay" now it is time for us to remind ourselves that our own language about ourselves is unnecessarily hurtful and damaging. If you expect a person to disclose they are HIV-positive, then you had also better respond with common decency. The adage, treat others as you would have them treat you applies. People living with HIV have the right to be intimate, to love another, and we as a community burdened with this epidemic have an obligation to support that right.

- Take action. Call your doctor and ask if they are asking everyone 13-64 to be tested for HIV. If they aren't ask them why. Call your local health department and ask them if access to pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis is available in your community and where. If it's not, ask why. Call your law maker and ask them to repeal arcane HIV laws that criminalize people living with HIV. Call your school board and demand to sit on the reproductive health committee and be a voice for rational LGBT sensitive reproductive health education. Donate two hours a week to distribute condoms for your local AIDS service organization. Offer to take friends for free testing anytime they want to go. Become a certified testing counselor.

Getting to zero new infections is going to take all of us. The options on how to act are myriad, but there is only one you. How are YOU going to help us get to zero?

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