Why I Build Upon AIDS Activism’s Past

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The Stone Refused
Why I build upon AIDS activism’s past
by George M. Johnson

I was recently watching a video that I was tagged in by a good friend, which showed his grandparents discussing the movement with none other than James Baldwin, or Jimmy as his folks referred to him. It was a glimpse into the past, of what it looked like to break bread while discussing the oppression, racism, and disdain for a country we were never meant to fit in. I was taken aback and almost brought to tears watching as I heard one of the people in the room state “the only reason we elect niggers into office, is to be the antagonist on our behalf.” These words shook me to the core, not because I disagreed, but because I fully understand the sentiment and at times questioned what my and others’ place in the room was meant to be as black HIV activists in a highly politicized pharmaceutical-driven world of HIV prevention and treatment.

When I think about the past, I think about how many lives were lost that didn’t have to be. I think about all the “what ifs” that should’ve been addressed before the epidemic became the epidemic that destroyed so many communities. That past however is what created what many of us are able to enjoy today. Many of us who are currently living with HIV or working in the field know that we are truly our ancestors’ “wildest dreams.” We went from a nation that was afraid to utter the letters H-I-V to one where many of us can live out and openly with our status as productive members of society. This does not mean that everything is okay, though.

When I look at the epidemic and how it still adversely affects people who are living in the south in comparison to those that are living in the north, that is a problem. When I see the archaic criminalization laws that come along with being sexually active HIV-positive individuals and how they adversely affect black and brown people in comparison to our white counterparts, I know there is still more building needed to be done. The problem is that many think we should be grateful for what we have, in comparison to what the ancestors of HIV had, those who long wished for the simple liberties of just being alive. For me I understand this notion, but also realize that it isn’t enough to just be happy taking a pill a day and seeing a doctor every three months. I know that it is about the totality of the lived experience and that anything that makes that experience less than that of an HIV-negative person is worth fighting for.

For that reason, some of us become the stones that the builders often refuse at the beginning. They look at us and see the direct correlation to our past ancestors of the ACT UP movement, those same people who were willing to storm the gates of the White House and toss the ashes of their loved ones on the pristine grass as a reminder of what inactivity looks like when people are dying. November 9th of 2016 became that day for many of us. For me, it was the first time that I realized that as hard as I and others had fought, if we didn’t pull on the legacy of our past to continue this fight forward we could easily be set back thirty years in this movement. A President-elect with no strategy for HIV is a recipe for disaster if we become content with “how far we have come.”

When I look at the past, reading and listening to the words of Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, and so many others, I know the greatness from which I come and why it’s important to not take everything given as “equality” that happens to lack the “equity” we deserve as black people effected and affected by the epidemic. As a black member of the lgbtq community I have faced many challenges based on my intersectionality, on not necessarily fitting into the society standards of accepted assimilation. These intersections that once made me different and ashamed I now embrace, knowing that I come from a past built on the counternarrative and that it is now my job to do the same as those before me and use my words as ammunition toward change.

I sometimes think about who will say that they are building on the past, and it is me they are considering as the shoulders on which they stand. Whether I did enough work to make sure that the future generation had it a little bit better than I may have had. For that, I continue to build upon the past not just in admiration for the work they did, but in continuation of a fight that I hope one day ends with me. As the story goes, the stone refused becomes the cornerstone and I am truly happy if that be my ending.


George M. Johnson is an HIV advocate who works for Us Helping Us, People into Living. Inc., located in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pride.com, Musedmagonline.com, Blavity.com, Rolereboot.org, and Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @IamGMJohnson.