COMMENTARY: After 30 years of AIDS, what can we say?

(Editor's note: Tom McSorley wrote this commentary on behalf of and with the support of the 4 Friends but takes personal responsibility for the opinions expressed within. The 4 Friends Collaboration includes Being Alive, Townspeople, Stepping Stone and Special Delivery -- four organizations with a common mission, to help meet the unmet needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.)

Speaking as the 4 Friends, a collaboration of San Diego’s AIDS Service Organizations, after 30 years of fighting this fight, we should have something to say.

Can we say that all who are living with HIV/AIDS has food to eat, medicine to heal, and a place to live? Can we say we have stopped infecting each other? Can we say to our children that they are safe from AIDS? Can we honestly say to the newly diagnosed that it gets better?

Honestly? No. We can’t say that.

Others today may say we have made much progress. They may say they see the light that leads the way to a world with no AIDS. They said the same in 1998 when 33 million people were living with HIV. Every year since, between 1.8 and 2.1 million die each year and 2.2 million new infections take their place.

And of those that are living longer with this disease only 15% can afford or get the meds. This is not progress. We have no cure. We have no vaccinations. So, what are we fighting for? We’re fighting for the 150 who become infected and the 8,500 who will lose their lives today and every day. We made a promise to do this.

These are not just numbers. It’s not math. These are all real people. They are you and I, our brothers, our sisters, our parents and friends.

We all have AIDS. It is not our fault. And yet each day we are punished because of a virus.

Thirty-four states have prosecuted HIV positive individuals for not disclosing their HIV status. California is one of many states to prosecute individuals as criminals for exposing others to HIV. In some states, this criminal act includes spitting.

We can’t say this is progress. We say it’s disgusting and not worthy of us.

I agree we should be more open. We do not talk plainly about this enough. It’s hard to cast blame for the silence because it seems no one listens any more.

• 50 out of 100 of us living with AIDS are not saying to sex partners: “I am positive.”

• 25 out of 100 of us do not ask our sex partners their status. When we don’t reveal ourselves to others we are unprotected, unaware and ignorant. We are not doing enough.

• 30 out of 150 people who will be infected today, will not say anything to anyone - including their parents, their doctor or their friends. They are afraid to ask for help. They fear what people will say.

Have we learned nothing? Have we not endured enough? Are we really saying to people living with AIDS today, “Hey, we’ve already done enough?” It was true way back when and it is true today. Silence equals death.

What can we say about all of this? You may say we have heard it all before and we don’t want to rehash it again. But humor me for a bit, as I had many friends who died of AIDS and I have something to say: The truth.

Thirty years ago, we were really scared. We were more than angry. We were outraged. We acted up, spoke truth to power, demanded change and fought, fought, fought.

Now that I am older and doing this for most of my career do I say I’ve done enough? Have I become numb to the fear? A good friend told me the other day that people are just bored of AIDS. I didn’t know what to say.

Year after year people with AIDS tell us the things they need but cannot get: Housing, assistance, transportation, medicine, drug treatment or support. We say we hear them and we’ll put it in our report. We’ll convene a meeting and plan for what to do and at the end of 30 years of days, there is really nothing new.

Do we need to do this for 30 more years? Will we leave this fight to our children? What are we waiting for? In all of human history each generation has left behind a better world but we are falling behind. Will we be the first that don’t do this? Do we choose to be blind to the constant suffering and the fear?

I am afraid of losing this fight and of losing our minds. I have a right to make this assessment because I’ve been fighting this fight every day for the last 25 years and loved and lost too many to keep silent or live in fear. I serve alongside my colleagues, The 4 Friends who have invested their lives too. As a group we came together when we were struggling for our own survival but we stick it out together because there is so much left to do. We are not about to fold our tents and say we have done enough.

Just this week a client visited, the day his name came up on the housing assistance waiting list, his time had come, so he thought. he lost his career, his income and his health, and the complications of HIV have disabled him but he wasn’t sick enough. He hadn’t hit that magic T-cell number to be labeled “with AIDS.” He was denied his housing. He was turned away.

What in God’s name are we supposed to say?

How sick and how poor do people have to be before we end this tragedy?

AIDS is not a chronic disease for us to manage. It remains a fight for dignity and for basic human rights: Housing, health care and pursuit of a better life. We must fight on, continue to speak the truth. On this World AIDS Day, we renew our promise and resolve to do more.

Remember today, and for all our days, those we loved dearly and lost. We hold them in our hearts. Let us care for the living. Be filled with compassion. Do our part.

Show to all our love. Run an errand, make a call. Cook a home-made dinner, be a loving friend to all. Value each other in greater measure than any limitation we have only then shall we find the will and the strength to do much more.

There is great strength in numbers when we stay together for this fight. Complacency, inaction, not doing all we can is something that is just not right. I’m afraid not to fight because the greatest fear I have to face is the day I have to hear my only son say to me, “Dad, I have AIDS.”

What would I say, what then could I do, say “I’m sorry son, there was nothing left to do?”

I don’t want to wait for that time when I have to fight back the tears. We are going to win this fight and we’ll be damned if it takes 30 more years.

Until it’s over, it is not enough.

This fight is for all of us!

The 4 Friends World AIDS Day Project:

The 4 Friends have created an online project called World AIDS Day San Diego, in which site visitors have the option to make a donation that will be split equally amongst the four HIV/AIDS service organizations while memorializing friends and loved ones who have lost their lives to AIDS. The suggested donation is $30, however participants may donate as much or as little as they can. Click HERE to visit the site.

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