The View from Here: CEO Neil Giuliano

2011 marks the 30th year of AIDS. The anniversary is a time to reflect, and to look forward as we chart a course to the end of this epidemic.

This month we launch a special year-long series for the anniversary, "The View from Here." Leading advocates, policy makers, medical professionals, researchers, philanthropists, educators, public health professionals, and celebrities will answer the same set of questions each month. We begin the series with the foundation’s new leader, Neil Giuliano.

1. We’ve learned a lot in 30 years. What do we have yet to learn?

We’re very fortunate that our collective response to the epidemic has been fueled by significant scientific advances that have enabled us to identify and treat—and recently prevent—infection. We’ve learned so much about the science of fighting HIV/AIDS. But, as a community, we still have much to learn.

Since the very early days, we knew HIV had a lethal wingman: stigma. We’ve made gains against stigma, but we have yet to learn how to beat it once and for all. We knew early on that HIV thrived in the margins, and while we’ve been successful in narrowing margins, they still exist, and others have emerged. We must strive to understand the unique challenges to reducing new infections among minority populations. We’ve known since the beginning that with a polarizing health issue, all public health gains would be hard fought. We must continue learning to develop collaborative advocacy efforts and strategic partnerships that become an unstoppable force of good for everyone. All along, we’ve known we would get nowhere unless we worked together. So we have. The 30th year of fighting this epidemic is cause to renew these efforts.

Since we have not discovered a cure or uncovered all the answers, one can only conclude that there’s still a lot to learn. I don’t think that’s a cop-out response, I think it is a fact.

2. What was your deciding moment, when HIV/AIDS became an important issue in your life?

The term “deciding moment” suggests there was a moment in time when I consciously chose to passionately commit myself to taking a stand against HIV/AIDS. As an openly gay man, public servant and community leader, not being involved was never an option.

For as long as I can remember as an adult, HIV/AIDS has been an important issue. I will never forget waiting for that first test result. Or people getting sick, disappearing. Or all the funerals, friends gone. Or friends having to tell their families they were gay and had AIDS in the same conversation. As someone who has survived, and has remained negative with a little luck and a lot of work, I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t an important issue in my life and in the lives of those I care about the most. That’s why I accepted this role, quite frankly.

3. With ever-increasing public health issues to contend with, why should anyone still prioritize HIV/AIDS?

This one is simple really: because unlike other health-related issues, it is preventable. Because if we just prioritize it enough, we can and will put an end to HIV/AIDS. Thirty years is thirty too many.

4. What keeps you up at night?

Nothing really keeps me up at night—rest is a necessity, not an objective for me. But I do wake up early, often with thoughts on my mind. Thoughts about finding new strategies to reach populations at high risk for HIV that evade existing prevention efforts. Thoughts about ensuring the fiscal soundness of the organization and of public programs for people living with HIV/AIDS. Thoughts about the responsibility of leading one of the nation’s premiere and most effective HIV/AIDS organizations with an exceptional professional staff and a near 30-year history. Thoughts about our clients who are counting on us to be there for them and their families.

I aspire to be what T.E. Lawrence called a “dreamer of the day,” one who is considered a dangerous man because he is awake and can make a dream a reality each day. In the good sense, of course.

5. Three decades into the epidemic, what gives you hope?

Hope is important, and one has to see, feel and communicate it well to be an effective leader of any cause or movement. Every day, I have the privilege of being inspired by our clients who are responding to HIV/AIDS with honesty, integrity and grace. That gives me enormous hope.

Thinking beyond our clients, we live in an age where the line between prevention and care has blurred, and scientific advances in testing and treatment have the promise to accelerate prevention efforts. That presents great hope. It also seems to me that the biomedical interventions cannot happen in a vacuum—they will require practical application to be effective. That opportunity presents great hope. And we must eliminate the stigma that stands in the way of effective HIV prevention, testing and care without regard to age, race, sexual orientation, gender or socio-economic status. That is both a challenge and an opportunity to which I believe we will rise. I am hopeful our culture is evolving in ways that we can be more effective in this regard.

So yes, I choose hope over despair, advancement over apathy, determination over defeat. I see it, I feel it, and will communicate it as best I am able. And I am confident that our mutual capacities and work together will defeat HIV/AIDS.

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