To Fellow Citizens of the World
We know how to help prevent HIV infections. Those having sex should always use a condom, drug users should shoot with clean needles, couples should be faithful and everyone should know and disclose their HIV status. It's that simple. And yet, the AIDS epidemic continues to grow at an unconscionable rate. Why?
Because prevention is all mixed up with morality. There are mistaken beliefs, contradicted by scientific study, that giving out condoms or clean needles encourages sexual promiscuity and drug abuse.
Too often, around the world, and in the United States particularly, you hear arguments against institutional action on prevention because interventions target those considered to be practicing 'sinful behaviors' - the promiscuous, homosexuals, adulterers, prostitutes, criminals, drug abusers.
We think that if 'those people' would just change their behaviors, all would be well. Well, those behaviors are never going to change. So, instead of recognizing the facts of life, and doing whatever we can to protect anyone and everyone at risk of getting infected, regardless of our personal opinions about their lifestyles, we condemn 'those people' to death by our inaction.
We counsel abstinence to teenagers we know will have unprotected sex. We demand fidelity of men and woman we know can and will be unfaithful. We withhold condoms and clean needles from inmates, while knowing that sexual intercourse and drug use are rampant in prison. We preach that homosexuality is a sin from our pulpits, knowing many in the congregations are gay and forced to live secret lives. And we turn a blind eye to sex workers around the world, willfully ignoring the fact that they mostly do what they do to survive.
We stigmatize those that need our help the most, out of misplaced moral arrogance. We punish those we label as sinners instead of saving them.
When churches won't give out condoms, when prisons won't give out clean needles, when schools won't teach safe sex, when communities won't accept their gay members, people get infected and die.
That, to me, is sinful behavior.
I will be reporting from the Seventeenth International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, the first week of August. It is my second convention, the first being last year in Toronto.
What struck me last year was that the prevention conversation had moved away from the moral issues I noted above to discussions about programs and procedures to help women protect themselves from the disease. There was a lot of talk about condom negotiation, the economic and social empowerment of women and the development of germicides.
But, the undertow pulling against progress is always secrecy and stigma.
Like it or not, we have to embrace those at risk, our so-called sinful brothers and sisters. We all have to attack this plague without undue moral judgment. It is the right thing to do. And the only way we can truly bring this epidemic under control.