In the 1980s, AIDS ravaged gay communities across the country. Gay and bisexual men of all races, classes and walks of life were falling ill, dying or attending their friends’ funerals every week.
It seemed that society was essentially allowing people to die from “the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS,” as the late HIV-positive gay activist Vito Russo put it in 1988.
The LGBT community united to demand action and address the reality that although HIV did not discriminate, the power structures that could help save lives sure did.
Today, however, HIV does appear to discriminate. More than six in 10 new infections in the United States are among men who have sex with men, known in this field as MSM. Within that group, the hardest-hit are African American men ages 13 to 29. From 2006 to 2009,CDC data show, HIV infections rose by an appalling 48 percent among these young men — one of the largest increases of any demographic. New HIV cases among black MSM are nearly equal to those for their white counterparts, despite the former’s far smaller percentage of the population.
This alarming disparity is one that the 19th International AIDS Conference, which begins Sunday in Washington, will address.
Even while this crisis has grown, help in combatting it has been shrinking. HIV no longer seems to be a priority for some in the gay community. Foundations focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, which have historically provided millions of dollars in crucial funding for HIV service organizations, are shifting their resources elsewhere. The fight is different now. There is a lack of urgency among some well-off, white gay men, a segment of the LGBT community that was crucial in battling HIV and turning the tide in the 1980s and ’90s.
I have worked in health and HIV services since virtually the start of the epidemic, and I know how hard it is to raise money to support desperately needed services. But in the past few years, it has become more difficult than ever, even as infection rates, particularly among gay and bisexual men of color, have spiked.
According to Funders Concerned About AIDS, a nonprofit that tracks all AIDS and HIV philanthropy, funding for the cause from U.S.-based philanthropies totaled $459 million in 2010, down more than $30 millionfrom 2009. The number of organizations giving $300,000 or more was down 30 percent in 2010 over the past three years, as longtime HIV/AIDS funders focused on different areas.
The Arcus Foundation once gave millions to HIV organizations as part of its mission to advance LGBT equality. In 2010, the group published a report that made a powerful case for funding to fight the spread of the disease in LGBT populations around the world. But today, according to its Web site, the only domestic HIV grant Arcus still makes is to Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
Other funders have changed their approach to battling HIV, attempting to address larger challenges to the health and well-being of LGBT people, such as poverty and access to health care. However, the result for those delivering vital HIV services is the same: fewer grants, fewer dollars.
The Gill Foundation, for instance, has given approximately $118 million in grants over its 17-year history to aid its mission of furthering LGBT equality. This includes more than $6 million between 1999 and 2007 for fighting HIV across the United States. Since 2007, however, the group’s grants for HIV services have been limited to organizations in Colorado, where it is based. Foundation officials emphasize that Gill is still funding national organizations that work to improve the health and services environment for gay people, including those with and at risk for HIV. But that is much different than directly funding those services.
Why is this happening? Overwhelmingly, these foundations’ giving is decided by rich, white gay men. And these funders are among the Americans who have access to high-quality health care. If they need them, they have access to life-extending antiretroviral drugs, which have made HIV a manageable chronic illness for many.
Gay donors are still giving generously to causes they believe in. While we have seen millions of dollars well spent on issues such as marriage equality and repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” somehow AIDS has fallen off, or at least moved well down, the list of priorities.
From the beginning of the epidemic, progress has always come when the community has banded together. We disseminated information about HIV through gay newspapers such as the Washington Blade. We created community health organizations; here in D.C., the Whitman-Walker Clinic was a crucial early center for treatment, testing and prevention of the disease (and remains important today). And we raised our voices, forming groups such as Act Up that proclaimed the truth — that silence about AIDS would mean our deaths.