Keeping a Promise and Fighting for the End of AIDS in the Age of Trump

Twenty-four years ago, I made a promise that has shaped my life and my work ever since. My beloved partner, Eddie, a talented musician, was dying of AIDS.

At the time, we felt powerless, isolated and angry. In 1992, there were no effective medical treatments and there was no hope for recovery. There was too much hate, rooted in fear, of a mysterious disease and its association with gay men. Sadly, for too long, our government’s de facto policy was neglect. As his final days neared, Eddie asked me to swear to him that he would not become “just another AIDS statistic,” imploring me to fight on.

After Eddie’s death, I kept my promise. I campaigned for years in coalition with many others to lift the 20-year ban on allowing HIV-positive immigrants into the U.S. until we won that glorious victory.

Photo by Christine Han Photography

Today, I am proud to join with my colleagues at American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to support those who are on the frontlines of the fight to end AIDS: advocates from Uganda, Thailand, Nicaragua and other countries. We work together to support specific local advocacy groups in developing countries and more broadly to ensure that the global response to AIDS places the needs of the most oppressed people at its center. Among the most vulnerable are gay men, transgender people, individuals who use injectable drugs and sex workers.

In a complete reversal of roles since Eddie died, the U.S. government now largely leads and funds the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

In 1986, the world invested a mere $100 million in the fight to defeat AIDS. In 2013, that number reached $19.1 billion annually. Now, inspired by UNAIDS’ 2014 commitment to “fast-track” the global response, governments, philanthropies and multilateral institutions are on track to raise the $35.6 billion needed to end AIDS by 2030. Because of this investment, more people know their HIV status, are receiving life-saving treatment and understand how to prevent transmission to others.

Still, only half of the 38 million people who are infected with HIV have access to treatment, and half of people who have HIV do not know they are infected. So despite the considerable progress we have made, we have much to do. And even though our government has played a positive role in recent years, the next administration could set us back decades.

I fear for the future, and that is why I am restating and renewing my promise to Eddie.

With Donald Trump and Mike Pence heading to the White House in January, I am deeply concerned that the progress we have made will be reversed. While the President-elect has no experience fighting AIDS, the Vice President-elect unfortunately has a mixed track record at best. Shockingly, during his 2000 congressional campaign, Pence expressed support for discredited therapies to treat people who love people of the same gender. And, while he was the Governor of Indiana, he allowed an HIV outbreak among drug users to turn into a public health crisis before he finally issued an executive order to allow syringe exchanges.

While Trump has not been traditionally associated with conservative religious organizations and values, these groups lined up squarely behind him during the 2016 election. Certainly, some of them will be promoting their simplistic view that abstinence is the answer to HIV/AIDS and their egregious work to support the criminalization of homosexuality and sex work in Africa and other parts of the world.

If this new administration embraces any one of these positions, the fight to end AIDS will reverse course and be tragically curtailed.

Over the past eight years, the U.S. government has made great strides to ensure that discrimination has no place in our public health policy. Clearly, such discrimination undermines efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. Just last month, we and other equal rights advocates celebrated as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled a policy that ensures that LGBTQ people — some of the most at-risk people for HIV — cannot be denied services by any company that does business with USAID. But some conservative religious groups blasted the non-discrimination policy. With the election of Trump and Pence, I worry that this hard-won victory against discrimination will be replaced by intolerance.

Much has changed since Eddie’s death in 1992. Innovations in HIV prevention and an expansion of civil rights for LGBT people in the United States and other countries have given me great hope for the future. Staying on track to end AIDS requires that we uphold policies that are effective, based on evidence, and compassionate.

Over the next four years, if members of Congress propose to cut funding for preventing and treating HIV/AIDS, we will not sit idly by. If the new administration listens to those who believe that abstinence and criminalization are the only interventions to address HIV/AIDS, we will make the case for policies that are based in science and that respect the essential dignity of every person — no matter who they are, whom they love or the kind of work they do.

And if AJWS grantees in 19 countries — some of whom receive financial support from the U.S. government — lose funding for HIV/AIDS prevention, we will advocate for the resources they need to continue the life-saving work they do every day.

When Eddie died, I promised that I would give his life meaning. In that spirit, AJWS and our partners refuse to allow 2017 to be the new 1981 — a time when fear, prejudice and judgment were the rule. At this defining moment in the history of our country and the world, I am joining with my global community of friends and colleagues to ensure that we don’t return to those painful days we fought so hard to never see again.

Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service.