A Longtime HIV Survivor on How We Achieve Health Equity
With the inauguration of President Joe Biden, I hope we may now see the kind of leadership on LGBTQ issues we need. As a gay African-American man living with HIV, I have lived through two pandemics. Under both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, LGBTQ people have had to shoulder the burden of discrimination while fighting to survive. I hope that 2021 is the year that changes.
I was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, in the early years of the epidemic. I lost many friends in the years that followed. So many of us in that time never expected to live a full life ourselves. After watching our friends die, it became hard to imagine that we’d ever make it to our 40th birthday — let alone retirement. The discrimination we experienced and the looming threat of the virus made it difficult to build careers and save for the golden years we never thought we’d see. I’ve lost jobs due to discrimination myself, and the stress of it nearly killed me. That’s why today, I help advocate for LGBTQ elders and folks on social security.
I have seen every stage of the HIV/AIDS crisis, from the pandemic, to its aftermath, to the present day. I know how much work it takes to survive and thrive in the face of this virus. As the administrator of a group home for folks recovering from HIV-related hospital stays, a member of the local HIV Planning Council, and a care outreach specialist for a community clinic, I’ve seen the kind of discrimination people still face. I once worked with a pregnant woman who was turned away from a local hospital for being HIV-positive. Because our clinic existed, she got the care she needed and her baby was born healthy.
In recent years, advances in prevention and access to testing and treatment have led to encouraging declines in new diagnoses. But stigma and anti-LGBTQ bias continue to have consequential effects on testing decisions. Time and again, I have spoken with clients who choose to hide their condition or status to avoid ostracization and discrimination. According to a recent research report by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 44 percent of Black LGBTQ adults have either never been tested, tested when they felt at risk, or once every two years or less. It’s an alarming statistic that falls far too short from CDC recommendation for testing frequency for HIV, which is at least once a year or more frequently.
Despite these challenges, it’s possible to live a full and healthy life with HIV/AIDS. As Americans, we should be able to participate in all aspects of daily life with dignity and respect, and without fear of discrimination. If we wholeheartedly want to end the HIV epidemic in the United States, we must seize the moral high ground and ensure LGBTQ Americans are provided with equal rights, better access to care, and increased secure housing. Federal nondiscrimination legislation will help us get there.
Although it’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come, right now, 50 percent of LGBTQ people live in the 29 states that lack comprehensive statewide laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people, including here in my home state of Georgia. And in the midst of a pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, it’s inhumane that millions of us can still be denied housing or medical care just because of who we are or who we love. Situations like these enable the spread of HIV.
Our nation is going through a profound change, but our values of treating others as we would want to be treated remains the same. The Equality Act would ensure that all LGBTQ Americans can live, work, and access public spaces and medical care free from discrimination, no matter what state we call home. It’s the right thing to do — which is why this type of legislation has broad and deep support across lines of political party, demographics, and geography. Public support is at an all-time high, with 83 percent of Americans saying they favor LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, including 68 percent of Republicans and a majority in every state in the country.
After all, equality is not a Democratic or Republican value, it’s an American value. It’s also the smart thing to do as we work to end the HIV epidemic in America.
Nathan Townsend is a 66-year-old Black gay man living and thriving with HIV for 36 years. He devotes his time and efforts helping to promote health equity and equal access to care for his community.