At the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, my grandmother, Elizabeth Taylor, gave some simple and on-point sexual advice: "Straight sex, gay sex, bisexual sex: use a condom -- whoever you are."
It might seem a bit unusual to hear your grandma reminding you (and a packed stadium) that if you're getting laid, use a condom. But she was always blunt -- and someone who spoke straight from her heart.
Since her death, I've been striving to continue on the path that my grandmother helped to establish in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Last year I helped to start a Los Angeles branch of genCURE, a youth-oriented division of amfAR (which she helped to form in 1985), and over the last few months, I have been working closely with the support-based Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) that she started in 1991.
At 27 years old, I've noticed that many of my friends don't seem to regard HIV/AIDS as a major concern in their lives. This is bewildering considering that here in the U.S. the CDC counts 20-24 year olds as the largest group of new infections and young adults and teens between 13 and 29 as comprising over 35 percent of new infections across all age groups. Of course, my age group is not uniquely at risk of infection. Persons of every age, background, sexuality, everywhere in the world, can be at risk. There are approximately 35 million people living with HIV around the world (WHO), with over a million here in the U.S., a fifth of whom do not realize they are positive (aids.gov).
So now, 25 years after the first World AIDS Day in 1988, I'm writing to reiterate the same fundamental call to awareness and action that World AIDS Day was founded upon and to which my grandmother was dedicated. I'm asking my friends and peers, young and old, gay and straight -- anyone who is reading this -- to engage in the individual responsibilities that we all share in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
In 1986 the US Surgeon General C Everett Koop released a report on AIDS in which he recommended condom use, testing to know one's HIV status and avoiding sharing needles as individual ways of stopping transmission of the virus. These basic principles aren't new but they are worth repeating year after year and generation after generation.
Get tested if you could have been exposed to anything that puts you at risk of HIV infection. The importance of getting tested is eloquently summarized in this brief video produced by Portland, Oregon-based Cascade AIDS Project, which is funded in part by ETAF. As the video clearly states: "one in five people who have HIV don't know they have it, but when they do know, they are 70 percent less likely to pass HIV to their partners, and if they take medication, use protection, and stay in care, then transmission rates can drop by up to 96 percent."
To expand upon that: If you are in an exclusive and trusting relationship and don't want to use protection, get tested together. I have friends who entered into exclusive relationships and began having unprotected sex because both parties thought (or claimed) themselves to be negative. They later learned, too late, that one of the partners had actually been positive and had transmitted the virus.
At the Freddie Mercury tribute concert I mentioned earlier, my grandma went on to give some more good advice: "If you share drugs, don't share a needle." She stood behind that advice by personally funding 59 syringe exchange programs since 1992. According to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center in Manhattan, to which ETAF has been providing funding since 1999, the transmission rate among injection drug users in New York State has plummeted from over 50 percent in 1992 to about 5 percent as of 2008. That exceptional drop in transmission speaks volumes to the importance of using clean syringes if you are using injection drugs.
ETAF and amfAR have helped to save countless lives around the world. Such organizations are imperative in our communal response to HIV/AIDS. Our individual actions are too.
If you engage in sexual or drug-related activities, it doesn't matter whether you identify them as being "high risk" or "low risk," because either way, you can be at risk. So, I'm writing now to simply say: please be careful. Demonstrate responsibility to yourself and those with whom you might share yourself. It is through such individual responsibility that we can each participate in the international fight against HIV/AIDS, and work towards ending the pandemic one step at a time.