Star-Spangled Activism


by David Waggoner

More of the same thing, you say. Politics as usual, Congressional gridlock, looking backward, and less hope and more spin. After the inauguration, when hundreds of thousands of women, children and men did demos—reminding me of the early days of AIDS die-ins, sitdowns, road closures, bridge takeovers, and everything else that HIV-positive Americans could think of doing to make a point about saving lives—the activism of every hue was resonating from sea to shining sea (a lot of places in-between that never participated before were now attempting to create change). In a town where corruption, nepotism, lethargy, and downright sleaze are flourishing more than ever before—things that were always part and parcel of the political soap opera that is Washington—one can say without a doubt that the draining of the swamp has become filled with more gators than a Mississippi bayou.

As we go to press, President Trump’s administration is beginning to implode: cabinet nominees and spokespeople alike are having a hard time of it. When our national elections are hacked by a foreign power, when hundreds of Planned Parenthood offices are facing foreclosure for providing women’s healthcare, when AIDS organizations across the board are having to get more creative in order to keep the doors open, then it’s time to realize that nonprofit activism is the closest thing we have to survival. What lies in the balance is that, after finally reducing the annual number of new infections, we are facing the horrifying reality that almost three decades of AIDS education are going the way of the public school. Less talk about safe sex, less distribution of condoms, and less availability of empowering knowledge for our youth on how to remain HIV-negative, are more reasons to cry foul.

Less is not more: Take for example, the cynical hijacking of the red carpet by Joy Villa, whose Trump dress (emblazoned with the president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan) has propelled this fifteen-minutes-of-fame diva to the top position of the Amazon and Billboard music charts. Her star-bangled dress became more of a showstopper than the Grammys; she is of middling talent, and more glitter than pop gold. But she did make a point. A point that any seasoned AIDS activist can recognize as relevant: that a moment in the spotlight will garner millions in sales.

If getting attention is the first step to making a worthwhile contribution to a cause, whatever the cause might be, then we need to up our game. In the case of bringing attention to the AIDS crisis (and the crisis of less funding for AIDS education and prevention services), the lesson to be learned is that we need more celebrities to bring back AIDS to activism. In this new era of draining away badly needed AIDS awareness, AIDS activists, educators, and advocates need to make sure we don’t forget that AIDS has always been a cause and not just a disease. If only we could get AIDS back in the spotlight, and put ribbons on every designer gown, then we might be able to afford to put rubbers back in every bar, coffeeshop, barbershop, and rave. Prevention is the key to continuing to bring down the number of new infections.

As A&U’s Chael Needle finds out in this month’s cover story, Alexandra Billings does not shy away from complex, concrete solutions but she believes LGBTQ and AIDS activism starts with simplicity: “The most important thing that we can do for humanity, in this country but also around the world, is to spread who we are and our love and compassion, and kindness to the people who disagree with us the most.” This issue embraces all types of activism. Her notion of building community in the most expansive sense is shared by Phoenix-based advocate Peter Rodriguez, who works to strengthen nonprofit services. And some activism makes good use of the arts. ACCELERATE! hopes to reach Black gay and bisexual men with an immersive theater experience that makes the audience part of the performance, and Nora Burns pays homage to her disco buddy, who died of AIDS-related causes in the nineties, in David’s Friend. Our March 2017 issue reminds us that taking action comes in many stripes, more even than on our flag.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.