Act V: A New AIDS Advocacy Group Focuses on Treatment as Prevention

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Courtesy Leigh Blake

Leigh Blake at a care home in Jalore, India, that was funded by Keep a Child Alive, an organization that she founded and led for ten years.

TIME: PEPFAR is a legacy of George W. Bush, whose global HIV programs were very progressive. How do you think Obama’s HIV policies compare?

L.B.: After 20 years of living in the United States, I became an American citizen specifically in order to vote for Obama. And it pains me greatly to say he has not lived up to his predecessor. Candidate Obama made AIDS and HIV a major component of his campaign, but his actions [on AIDS spending] so far have been disappointing. Obama admittedly came into office dealing with a hornet’s nest of AIDS-related challenges dating back to the Reagan era. Now, as we look for continued PEPFAR funding, Pres. Obama has a historic opportunity on World AIDS Day to completely redeem himself and we certainly hope that he will. The President can do something to truly be remembered for — saving millions from deaths that are totally unnecessary.

TIME: Back in the fall of 2009, just before that year’s World AIDS Day, out-lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) released a videotaped message imploring the LGBT community to support Pres. Obama’s then highly contested health care reform plan. Despite the persistently disproportionate number of HIV cases among gay men, Rep. Baldwin never once mentioned HIV or AIDS in her message. Do you think examples like this suggest that the gay community has forgotten about AIDS?

L.B.: Perhaps it is time for the gay community to retake a stronger sense of ownership around AIDS, but then again, this could apply to everyone. And yes, within the gay community, there has emerged a sense of laxness around preventing the spread of HIV in terms of sexual behavior. But every gay man I know — whether in the Western or developing worlds — remains deeply committed to the fight against HIV and we must always remember that the gay community can take the credit for teaching the world how to create a movement against injustice during those early days of this disease. Groups like ACT UP and its founder, Larry Kramer, are truly my heroes.

TIME: Part of Act V’s mandate is to reshape the conversation around AIDS/HIV — to ‘rebrand’ it in a sense. What does this mean exactly?

L.B.: From the beginning of the AIDS crisis, there has been a certain amount of morality surrounding this topic and we want to change that. By making AIDS-related information very clear, very simple, we want people to focus on HIV simply as a disease — just like any other disease — and remove the moral turpitude from this entire topic. AIDS is associated with sex, which becomes very disconcerting to people.

TIME: But AIDS has much to do with sex, no?

L.B.: Yes, and therein lies the contradiction and the irony, because we are living in perhaps the most sexualized culture on the planet. Sex is used for everything — on MTV, in hip-hop, to sell products to young girls. Yet when it comes to AIDS and sex, everyone seems to just go into the closet. We have to get people to see AIDS as just a virus — one that really has nothing to do with supposed immoral behavior. Science now allows us the ability to throw morality out the window and reinvent ourselves, rebrand AIDS, get people into treatment and bolster entire health systems in the process.

TIME: Much of the HIV prevention/treatment focus is on the developing world, but what about the situation right here in America — where 850,000 HIV-positive patients are on waiting lists for medication.

L.B.: That number is truly shocking and reflects the same kinds of social conditions that are currently causing a revolution on streets all over America. We have let insurance companies and bureaucrats decide what drugs we can and cannot have access to, and this simply comes down to money. If you have money in America, you can do whatever you want — even speak to the President at a fund-raiser. But if you do not have money, there is no social mattress to fall back upon. What you see with Occupy Wall Street is this desire to no longer live under a system so utterly inauthentic and so clearly controlled by corporations and those with money. Act V is a similar kind of ‘people’s’ movement.

TIME: You were an early recruiter of celebrities to give a public voice to the AIDS crisis. What was this process like two decades ago and how is it today?

L.B.: It has never been easy working with celebrities, but it was easier because I was dealing with the music industry. Even early on when there was such a stigma surrounding AIDS, I think musicians were better able to enter into this dialogue because music has always revolved around sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Celebrities today are necessary because movements must use every tool available to generate publicity and cultivate public engagement. It has become far harder to gain access to celebrities today, but I feel that the artists themselves — people who give their art to the world — are actually pretty funky people, especially in America.

TIME: After 30 years and 30 million worldwide deaths, what do you believe remains the biggest misconception around HIV/AIDS?

L.B.: There is this notion that there is nothing we can do to truly make a difference in the developing/impoverished world, that people are too poor or too desperate for actions to really matter. This is simply not true. People in the developing world are some of the most mobilized folks around, who’ve been able to maintain their humanity despite the incredibly difficult circumstances around them. This is why treatment matters, because treatment can change everything for these communities. ARVs provide them with the chance to return to work, to raise their children — they literally give sick patients their lives back.

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