Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Forget About HIV

We're taking a break from our usual bossiness and condescension today, but don't worry - it'll be back tomorrow.

In a letter published in the Washington Post this week, Elton John wrote to his friend Ryan White:
"Dear Ryan:

Twenty years ago this month, you died of AIDS. I would gladly give my fame and fortune if only I could have one more conversation with you, the friend who changed my life as well as the lives of millions living with HIV. Instead, I have written you this letter."

Elton goes on to describe the world Ryan lived in - one where he was expelled from school and shunned and threatened by his community - and to acknowledge the tremendous difference Ryan made once he became a celebrity. As Elton said:
"When the media heralded you as an "innocent victim" because you had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, you rejected that label and stood in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men. You reminded America that all victims of AIDS are innocent.
When you became a celebrity, you embraced the opportunity to educate the nation about the AIDS epidemic, even though your only wish was to live an ordinary life."

And he did. For our readers who were too young in the late 80s to remember, Ryan was on national television, in newspapers, and in front of lawmakers, talking about his experiences as a teenager with HIV and his hopes for the future, both in his own life and for the disease in this country.

As Elton continues to tell Ryan about all the things that have changed about HIV in this country, including the CARE Act that bears his name and how much the disease has changed for children ("Children in America are seldom born with the virus, and they no longer contract it through transfusions"), it is clear how far we've come and what a difference Ryan himself made.

But also:
"Ryan, when you were alive, your story sparked a national conversation about AIDS. But despite all the progress in the past 20 years, the dialogue has waned."

Some facts that Elton shares:

In addition, in November of 2009, the World Heath Organization announced that HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of disease and death among women of childbearing age (15-44) worldwide. That's huge news, isn't it? Something you'd expect to hear about? Not only was it barely covered in the mainstream media, it was conspicuously absent from the internet and blogs, too. Even a blog like Jezebel, which positions itself as a feminist view of pop culture, fashion and sex, buried this major piece of information. Consider the following: More than 200,000 people in this country don't know their HIV-positive status. Half of new infections are believed to be among people under 25. I don't have specific demographic information, but I've read Jezebel daily for years, and I am aware that their readership skews young - readers in their 20s - and female. And yet, they decided to put this information smack in between two cutesy bits about animals in their links roundup Leftovers. Maybe because Lady Gaga's makeup wasn't involved?

I was going to start this final paragraph by saying that I'm not trying to lecture you, but you know what? I am. (Turns out the bossiness isn't easy to turn off.) We are woefully complacent about HIV, especially in this country, and there is still so much work to do. So get educated, get tested, and stay safe. And if lipstick will help? Have at it.

Get Educated
The Body
Smart + Strong
AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families
Ryan's Story

Get Tested
HIV Testing 101
National HIV and STD Resources


  1. Thank you for this post. My youngest sister is part of a generation that has not known a world without HIV and AIDS. We don't talk about it enough, and we aren't actively aware of it in the same manner that we were. (On some level, I feel like we aren't afraid of it enough either.)

  2. Yeah, when I think about what kids now are learning and hearing about HIV versus what we were learning and hearing, it makes me sad. They don't have a Ryan, or even a Magic or a Pedro.

    ...seriously, I can't think of a single big time HIV-positive celebrity, besides Magic, who is problematic in his own way.

    As I was typing this, I got this link in my email about HIV Prevention and Sexuality Education in Colorado. Really interesting stuff.