HIV Is a Preexisting Condition

...but so is our legacy of activism

by George M. Johnson

It is a scary time to be living in a world where HIV funding could ever be up for debate. Thirty-six years removed from the beginning of the epidemic, we have seen great strides made in the advancement of healthcare in the U.S. for those living with HIV. However, all that work that has been done could easily be reversed if we don’t resist like our ancestors did so fervently in the past.

It was almost three months ago when Trump made the public statement that his administration would leave HIV funding as it was. For those of us working in HIV, this wasn’t great news as we know that necessary increases are needed in HIV funding if we are ever going to get the number of new infections down in the most marginalized communities.For years, we have been working with the funds that were available, and know the importance of increasing funding to match cost of living increases and inflation. However, just two weeks after that statement, the first proposed budget from the President’s office included cuts to HIV funding of $350 million, of which $50 million would affect programs domestically. For me, this was the final straw in ever trusting that this administration would do right by us.

Like our ancestors who battled President Reagan and his administration during the early stages of the pandemic, we have now reached a point where we can’t be complicit in the violence against the HIV community. We have made advancements each year in combatting the virus, yet still we haven’t found a cure. To do so, funding for research-based grant studies and trials is going to be necessary to departments like NIH and HHS. The advancements in medication and treatment are not cheap, but necessary as we have gone from over thirty pills a day to just a one day. We went from condoms as the main line of resistance against the contracting of the virus to PrEP. These advancements cost billions of dollars and took many years, but have saved millions of lives.

Now the fear is that HIV will no longer be protected, and listed as a “pre-existing” condition. For the first time since I started treatment, I am now afraid of what the future of healthcare will look like for people living with HIV. I would like to think that the people who are our elected officials realize that HIV is not a Democratic or Republican issue to be divisive about. HIV affects humans—it’s an issue which runs across both party lines. To watch these people who we have placed in office to make the best decisions for our citizens continue to put politics over the health and welfare of people living here and across the world with HIV is disgusting. I never thought that we would get to a place where people were more concerned about hurting their rivals than the millions of lives that would be hurt if people were unable to afford their treatment going forward.
What does resistance look like?

Much like our ACT UP past, we may have to take it to the streets to get the answers that we want out of people. We are going to have to rally and march for the continued protections we deserve, as people living with a pre-existing condition who just want to have proper healthcare and medical treatment. This also means that those who are less affected by HIV will have to become better allies to help those communities that are still most affected by the virus with funding, resources, and being more vocal on their behalf.

Resistance will also look like the people of this country banding together to vote for officials who will make decisions that are for the betterment of our nation, inclusive of a mentality that will destroy systems that continually oppress the most marginalized people. This means that we will have to work within our communities to flip the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then hold those elected officials to task, being willing to replace them and even run for office if we aren’t getting what we need out of them.

Resistance looks like showing up and showing out. I have become a very vocal advocate and activist and show all parts of my life, inclusive of the good days and bad days. We need to be in the room when decisions are being made, and force our way in the door when we are not being invited. Resistance isn’t easy, but it will be necessary going forward as constituents of our respective states have collectively decided that the top 1 percent matter more than those of us lying in the bottom 99.

We are in the final stages of the budget being approved and so far the Senate has made efforts to not allow these cuts in HIV. Again, it is a scary place to be living in, when you think that so many could be so willing to reduce funding around a virus that destroyed so many communities and families not just twenty years ago. I know for me, the fight must continue. This is no longer about Republican or Democrat. It’s about life.

George M. Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, JET, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Black Youth Project, and several HIV publications. Follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.