Love Is in the Air
by David Waggoner

For some reading the title of this essay in America’s oldest continuosly published HIV magazine may seem odd at best. But I’m a big believer in the power of love to get us through the toughest of times. Love is what motivated Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] to speak truth to power when she testified in front of Congress for the need to fund treatment and care for what eventually became the Ryan White CARE Act when President Ronald Reagan couldn’t speak the word “AIDS.” But Elizabeth Taylor was not the only patron saint of AIDS awareness. In fact there were hundreds, if not thousands, of celebrities, politicians, scientists, writers, artists, illustrators, educators, and advocates in the pages of A&U over the years.

Over our thirty years of publication (yes, 2021 is our Pearl Anniversary), critics have sometimes not understood why we feature celebrities in our cover stories, pooh-poohing us as some sort of People magazine of HIV journalism. But these critics seem to forget that these celebrities are often from the fields of performing arts, music, fashion, and visual arts, professional communties that were hit hard by the early AIDS pandemic. People like Elizabeth Taylor, Morgan Fairchild, Joan Rivers, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Alison Arngrim and Beth Broderick, among many others, saw their colleagues fall ill and die, and lent their heartfelt starpower and the ability to get things done when other well-connected people were sitting on their hands. In terms of leveraging starpower, today’s equivalent may be Kim Kardashian and her fight for prison reform—a lot of people now look up from their smart phones and listen when they might not have done so before. But here at A&U we have realized that over the years, grass-roots HIV/AIDS activists have become celebrities in a sense. Nowadays, HIV/AIDS activists have increasingly expanded platforms. Look at Mark S. King, Maria HIV Mejia, Davina Conner, and Peter Staley—our AIDS communties listen when they speak, and for good reason.

This is why we have continually strived to put HIV/AIDS activists and importantly people living with HIV/AIDS on the cover. We no longer need proxies (if we ever did) to advocate for us. We can do that very nicely on our own, thank you very much.

Case in point is this month’s cover story subject, Deirdre Johnson, who is fighting for the needs of our communities, particularly through the lens of social justice. Interviewed by Editor at Large Chip Alfred and photographed by Courtney Ramsey, Johnson is a steadfast advocate who helps empowers others to make positive social change. As a facilitator for The SISTA Project (Sistas Informing Sistas on the Topic of AIDS), she recalls her experience with over 350 young African-American women: “We would really have connections with these women, especially the younger ones. I got to hear their stories about family members having HIV or AIDS, dying, doing drugs, or even experiencing lovemaking for the first time. That’s where I found my other niche in advocacy. It was then I figured out who I was really doing the work for and it was for these young women.”

Along with this spotlight on Johnson’s advocacy, this issue offers many who are making a difference. Senior Editor Hank Trout interviews three African-American advocates, Preston Vargas, David J. Johns, and Claire Gasamagera, who weigh in about how to address health inequities and gaps in leadership. Managing Editor Chael Needle talks with Twana Lawler, who combines faith and AIDS awareness in her ministry, and, in this month’s Gallery, discusses new takes on sex and relationships in the era of PrEP and U=U with artist and scholar Francesco Di Benedetto.

With a deeply felt love for their communities, these advocates find the energy to keep going. We need some of that Valentine’s magic in light of the current pandemic. Right now, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the economy, community and to those most vulnerable like those living with HIV/AIDS. If we ever get back where we can hug again, hold your loved ones tighter and, in all honesty, embrace people you don’t even know because we all need to feel the love.

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