Op-Ed: HIV Not a ‘Tragic’ Diagnosis Anymore

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 This week we commemorate those people that have lost their lives to HIV, and those still living with the disease. 

The commemoration of HIVis held on Dec. 1 every year. It is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate the lives of those who we have lost.

This week, two names come to my mind. First, Freddie Mercury, and second, Magic Johnson. 

Last month, Hollywood celebrated Mercury’s memory with the release in theaters worldwide of a movie about his life – “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The film was named after one of the more magical songs Mercury recorded and performed.

Freddie Mercury was only 45 years old when he passed away from an AIDS related illness Nov. 24, 1991. He only publicly acknowledged his disease the day before he died. 

Just like that, he was gone. 

In his honor, band members of Queen created an HIV foundation in his name. It has raised millions of dollars for citizens of 57 countries, often finding parents for children left alone as orphans if they lose their parents to the epidemic.

It was only a week before Freddie Mercury’s pronouncement that NBA star Magic Johnson revealed to the world he had HIV. Just like that, everyone thought he would be gone too. 

Today, however, Magic Johnson is alive and well, still a star, and very much an entrepreneur. An AIDS spokesperson to this day, he is also a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. Not a bad life. 

Magic started a foundation under his own name as well. It presently serves more than 250,000 individuals each year through direct and collaborative programs that enhance the lives of economically challenged people and empower underserved communities.

One of the reasons we celebrate World AIDS Day is to remind ourselves that living with AIDS has always been a struggle. It has always needed more funding and support than our government ever provided. In many countries throughout the world, that is still the case. 

In America, once, a long time ago, our government not only fought AIDS, it fought people with AIDS. Once, there was a time when an HIV diagnosis meant not only a death sentence, but defined you as a second-class citizen who “got what they deserved.” Once, the disease was not enough. You had to fight who you were.

Once, there were no foundations, no treatment plans, no programs, counseling groups or group resources. Once, a man with HIV lived as an outcast, a social reprobate. It was so wrong we will never ever be able to make it right.

Yes, once an HIV diagnosis led newspapers to call your life “TRAGIC.” Look at the Sporting News on the page next to my column from Nov. 18, 1991. That is the world then. No one would dare publish such a headline today.

Living with HIV does not alter who you are or what you might become. Like diabetes or any other illness, you live with it, and engage it with medication and lifestyle adjustments. Once, that was not so.

If you want to fully appreciate what an HIV diagnosis meant decades ago, read the book or see the HBO film, “And the Band Played On.” It is an early account of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., written by the late Randy Shilts. He won the Stonewall Book Award for it.

Before he too died of an AIDS related illness in 1994, Randy Shilts, at age 42, also authored a biography of Harvey Milk, “The Mayor of Castro Sheet,” and a treatise on discrimination of gays in the military, “Conduct Unbecoming.”He was the best of his genre.

SFGN publishes HIV-related supplement, “theSpirit,” tevery year. It reminds us that HIV is still prevalent and persistent in South Florida. But it is no longer a “tragic” diagnosis. There are meds available and controls accessible which allow you to live a healthy, productive life.

This issue of SFGN’s bimonthly high glossy magazine, the Mirror, is on the stands this week, and features Freddie Mercury. Our last issue profiled Sir Elton John, whose farewell concert tour came to South Florida venues this past weekend.  

This newspaper and our magazine will continue to illuminate the lives and showcase the virtues of those who go head to head with HIV. We will also let you know the vices of those who do not.

From Elton John to Freddie Mercury, from Care Resource to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, our gay universe has fought globally against HIV. The time will come when we celebrate a cure instead of commemorating a loss. 

That day will come.

Last month, in New York City, the Elton John Foundation held its annual gala, featuring Sheryl Crow. In one night, the charity raised $3.9 million to support HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and advocacy programs across the globe.   

In the past quarter of a century, John’s foundation has raised over $400 million. We each need to do our part, whether it is acting as a caregiver to a patient or riding in a bike to Key West. Just last week, the HIV SMART Ride in South Florida raised over $1 million. Amazing.

HIV has cut an unforgiving swathe across gay America, but our region has become the rule rather than the exception. 

Individually, we need to do better.South Florida is still the epicenter of the virus in the U.S. That’s a title we don’t need.

More than 35 million people have died from AIDS related complications and illnesses, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in history.

No matter what we do, more is required. Little things matter, so this year’s theme for World AIDS Day, which is marking its 30thanniversary, is “Know Your Status.” Get tested. You can’t get treated if you don’t get tested.

In the meantime, on your way to a testing center, say a prayer for those no longer here, and fight like hell for those who still are. 

Norm Kent, the publisher of SFGN, is the former executive director of AIDS Project Florida, and served on the Board of Directors of Center 1, Broward County’s oldest and then largest HIV advocacy program.


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