History, progress, and our obligation

San Francisco supervisor and gay rights leader Harvey Milk believed that, to achieve equal rights, all LGBT people had to come out. In his view, the act of disclosing your identity to family and friends was a form of activism, and he believed that living openly and visibly would rally critical support for LGBT rights. 

October is LGBT History Month and October 11 is National Coming Out Day. As we recognize and celebrate our progress and the achievements of the generations who have come before us, we must reaffirm our commitment to progress. 

October 11 is also the birthday of Cleve Jones, a protégé of Harvey’s and a co-founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Thirty-five years ago, in the early days of the epidemic, Cleve realized that, if people were to survive the plague, our community’s response had to reach beyond hospitals and clinics. Cleve knew that the community had to get involved. 

And it did. 

The selflessness and tenacity of our founders stopped AIDS from erasing our community entirely, and enabled my generation to escape a lifetime of the grief and loss that long-term survivors know all too well. San Francisco AIDS Foundation has become a national leader in the fight against HIV, and last month, we celebrated our 35th anniversary at Tribute Celebration. 

San Francisco, once “ground zero” for the AIDS epidemic, is now leading the way to a different kind of “zero.” Because of the way individuals and institutions came together, San Francisco is now positioned to be the first major city in the world to achieve zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero HIV stigma. 

And we’re on the right track. Last month, the San Francisco Department of Public Health announced that there were only 223 new HIV diagnoses in 2016 – a historic low. But, 223 new diagnoses is still 223 too many. 

As our progress continues, our work gets harder. Even as the number of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths fall year by year, the epidemic continues to rage in key communities. Because of these health disparities, we must continue to innovate the internationally-recognized “San Francisco Model” so that we can address the changing face and changing needs of those most affected by HIV. Racial and gender disparities must be addressed, and we must provide support for our elders who face the compound challenges of aging and living with HIV. It is our moral obligation not to fail long-term survivors again. 

Harvey Milk’s belief that coming out was a form of activism doesn’t seem radical today because of the sacrifices that his generation made in the name of progress. As we celebrate that progress and the work of LGBT rights activists this month, we cannot allow our incredible progress to incite apathy. 

While it may be easier today for many people live openly as themselves, we know that not everyone has benefitted the same from progress. The same communities where coming out is as difficult as it was 35 years ago are those where health disparities persist. Moreover, new policies that threaten our rights and our health are introduced in Washington D.C. on what seems like a daily basis. 

We all have a role to play in honoring LGBT history and our legacy of 35 years of service. San Francisco AIDS Foundation will remain on the cutting edge, advocating for sound health policy and serving those who are the most vulnerable. We remain committed to rising up, speaking out, and fighting to end the AIDS epidemic.

With gratitude,

Joe Hollendoner, MSW

CEO, San Francisco AIDS Foundation

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