What’s Your Brand of AIDS Activism?

Frontdesk by David Waggoner

Frontdesk by David Waggoner


January is usually the coldest month for New Yorkers. But I’m not worried about the weather coming in the first month of the new year for each issue emanates warmth and vitality. A fire kindled over twenty-three years ago, A&U is both a labor of love and a personal history of my own relationship to a virus that entered my body the same year that I signed off on the first proofs of the premiere issue of what was then called Art & Understanding magazine. Originally a literary magazine with contributors like Gwendolyn Brooks, John Ashbery, and Mark Doty, today’s incarnation, renamed A&U, includes men, women, and children who are both world-famous and neighborhood-known activists. For the goal of the magazine continues to be one of destigmatizing AIDS through the actions of artists from around the world; of bringing consciousness to the world through high-profile cover interviews; and from documenting the ever-changing face and focus of the pandemic. An artistic and literary AIDS activism that can be both enjoyed as well as put to good use. A sense of urgency informs every poem, every public voice, every word of wisdom, and every laugh-out-loud statement by some of the most effective AIDS ambassadors around. In short, A&U seeks to grant access to those qualities that are hard to measure but important: respect, dignity, a feeling of togetherness, empowerment. You, the reader, makes editing this magazine truly humbling.

One of the world’s current crop of “AIDS diplomats” is this month’s cover hunk and humanitarian, the actor and singer-songwriter Cheyenne Jackson. As the newest goodwill ambassador of the leading research organization, amfAR (co-founded by Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim), Mr. Jackson seeks to inspire younger folks to get involved. Jackson is anything but demure. He’s forthright and brutally honest about what is a pretty scary reality: that AIDS will still be with us for another thirty years unless we get everyone on board to find a cure. When A&U’s Dann Dulin asks Jackson what role he plays as amfAR’s International Ambassador, Cheyenne jokes, but doesn’t hold back: “I’m their bitch.” He explains to our interviewer that he believes his role is an important one—to help raise badly needed funds to bring about groundbreaking research (protease inhibitors were in part discovered through research grants funded by the organization). Jackson continues: “It’s all about education, education, education…people need to know the facts, and the only way to do that is to teach them early. That’s why Elizabeth Taylor was so effective. She was glamorous and she represented that perfect illusion of beauty.” He can relate to how Taylor used her fame to a good end. In the recently aired documentary, The Battle of amfAR, Ms. Taylor says, “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my fame, mostly hate. But I finally realized what it’s for.” Cheyenne agrees; one shouldn’t be afraid to use fame to win the war on AIDS.

While the first wave of AIDS activism focused on treatment research, the current wave has taken treatment access as one of its top priorities. As the treatment cascade model shows, for every 100 Americans with HIV only forty-one are linked to antiretrovirals. That is, access is not as simple as opening a pharmacy cupboard in New Jersey or a box in Khayelitsha, South Africa. Nelson Mandela, to whom we pay tribute in this issue, knew this well. He worked hard to create a shame-free environment so that those who were positive could step foot in the clinic they otherwise avoided. Here, in the U.S., activists are making sure that healthcare is culturally competent so that whole groups of individuals are not shunned. Two articles in the issue, “Transfiguration” and “Breaking Through,” describe how healthcare workers tailor services so that trans individuals receive the care and support they need. And Larry Buhl, in “Linking Up,” describes how community health workers are strengthening services so that those living with HIV/AIDS not only link to care but stay for the benefits. Nothing warms my heart more than knowing activists and ambassadors are working to grant us access to better research, better treatment, and, also, a better sense of what it means to live with HIV and AIDS.

David Waggoner is the founder and editor in chief of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine.