Why the Sudden Silence
By Rich Tafel
Rich Tafel was the founding Executive Director of Log Cabin Republicans. He also served as Director of Adolescent Health in MA. Today, he is President of RLT Strategies offering policy and leadership strategies to cutting edge social entrepreneurs fighting for world change.
There’s a sudden silence in our society around HIV AIDS and based on what I’ve watched over my entire life time silence around AIDS is never a good thing.
My coming out as a gay man corresponded pretty directly to the explosion of AIDS cases in America. I lived in Boston at the time and remember the silence in the great culture around the deaths of young gay men. I also remember we in the gay community discussing various theories such as you can get it from the whirl pool at the gym, poppers or even people preparing food.
The silence around AIDS was so profound that the first really effective motto of the AIDS movement used by ACT UP was “Silence=Death”. Public elected officials seemed to be saying that as long as this disease is killing gays and drug addicts, it wasn’t worthy of a response.
My tendency in life is to overcome my fears by steering right into them. It was this motivation that led me to become and AIDS Buddy in 1986. This meant that you were trained to meet the weekly needs of your dying AIDS buddy and to attend your support group on a monthly basis. My years as an AIDS buddy had and still have a profound impact on me. My first buddy, Richard, shocked everyone living for six months.
During each weekly visit I got to observe all the failed remedies we had to offer people living with AIDS. For me the silence was giving away to a horrible awareness. Each week another 30 something gay man you’d know was listed on the obituary page of the local gay press.
Though the silence in the gay community was falling away, there still persisted a silence among the general public. AIDS simply wasn’t talked about.
In 1991, I became head of adolescent health programs in Massachusetts. The same silence I’d experienced seven years early still persisted within the Department of Public Health. I was appointed by the governor at that time as an openly gay man and in my first meeting with my the new team I was told, “Now we know you’re gay and you’ll want to push a gay agenda and work on AIDS stuff, but we don’t have the resources to address those issues and the issues we’re focused on now. So get any ideas out of your head of trying to put those issues on the agenda.”
More silence on AIDS and this time from health officials. Fortunately, they didn’t get their way and Massachusetts went on to pioneer AIDS education among teens with a specific outreach to gay youth. There were those who broke the silence. T head of the AIDS Department at that time, John Auerbach, was a tireless champion on the issue. Today, he’s the commissioner of all public health in Massachusetts.
During my years as the founding executive director of Log Cabin Republicans I once again encountered silence around AIDS issues. A large portion of my time was consumed with lobbying on behalf of AIDS programs often to a Republican controlled Congress. I remember the look on staffers faces as I requested to meet with them to discuss the Ryan White Care Act or other AIDS funding issues. Most had never discussed this topic. Again I found myself breaking the silence around AIDS.
In the early 90’s I was able to play a small role in insuring AIDS treatment was provided to patients in Africa. What struck me most about my visits to people living with AIDS there was that death had become so prevalent for so many families that finally silence had been broken and there was openness to treatment and education. Silence still played a key role in infection where many wives felt they couldn’t speak out about their own health concerns to husbands who they feared might infect them. As horrible as it was attending funerals in the 1980’s, my trip to AIDS programs in Africa left a whole new level of impact. When you see lots of child sized coffins for sale by the side of the road you never forget it.
Following the success of drug companies creating amazing HIV drugs the issue of HIV has gone silent again. There’s little to no discussion that the rates of HIV infection are climbing among gay men under 30. Once again we’re silent.
This silence is having devastating impact. In the city where I live Washington DC our nation’s capitol, 1 in 30 adults are infected with HIV a rate higher than Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda. In New York City 1 in 10 men who have sex with men are now infected with HIV. In communities of color these rates are dramatically higher. In some of the leading US cities, HIV rates are 30% practically double that of South Africa. This and more dire data was published in the February 10, 2010 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine entitled “AIDS in America — Forgotten but Not Gone.”
Silence has always been AIDS best friend. To remain silent is to participate in its conspiracy. A new generation of leaders has to break the silence on this horrible epidemic here at home.