I remember the first time I heard of an acquaintance who died because of HIV/AIDS. It was in 1981. He was a psychiatric technician at a state hospital for the developmentally disabled. He had previously been an Ice Capades dancer. Back then, this condition wasn’t even called AIDS. It was called GRID, which means gay-related immune deficiency. All that people knew back then was that it was a terrible disease that was killing gay men. In September 1982, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) started calling it AIDS. Throughout the years, I have come into contact with HIV and AIDS in many places, with many friends – both survivors and those who succumbed – and in many contexts. My husband and I rode bicycles from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS services in California. We served in the Peace Corps, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, during the height of an AIDS denialist president, and also during the introduction of antiretroviral medication to sub-Saharan Africa. I have been visiting an HIV-positive transgender woman asylum seeker from El Salvador, who is being held at a detention centre outside San Diego, California.
I have seen the sadness, despair, fear, trauma, stigma and death caused by AIDS. But, I have also started witnessing the seeds of hope – when treatment started saving lives, when transmission from mother to child has been practically eliminated from this world, when harm reduction strategies help prevent the spread of AIDS in marginalized communities, and when scientific progress is made.
Being a part of the AIDS community as a volunteer at the International AIDS Conferences and IAS Conferences on HIV Science gives me hope for the future. I started volunteering as a Session Room Monitor in Washington DC in 2012. Since then I have volunteered in Melbourne (2014), Durban (2016), Amsterdam (2018), Mexico City (2019) and am looking forward to San Francisco/Oakland (2020) and Berlin (2021). This event has become a home for me, and the people who I meet up with year after year have become a family. The scientific advances, activism and progress have become a beacon of hope.
The most powerful positive impact of the conference for me is meeting so many wonderful young people who are becoming doctors, researchers, social workers, therapists and other professionals who will be on the frontlines to tackle and eliminate this epidemic. It is their enthusiasm and spirit that keeps me coming back. Please come and join us as a volunteer. You will not regret it!