November 20, 2012
Being an AIDS treatment activist holds lots of very special memories for me. I could go on telling stories for days of demonstrations, actions, conferences and everyone and everything that made them special. I joined ACT UP New York right after the first protease inhibitors were approved. The dying in the U.S. was just beginning to slow down and people were still afraid and angry. ACT UP still named those who had died during the week at each meeting.
While each new drug was approved, we demonstrated, did actions and zaps, went to conferences and worked for change. Sometimes there'd be six or seven of us sleeping in each run-down motel room as we traveled to take to the streets, storm stages, grab the mic at meetings and commandeer pharmaceutical booths. We worked to assure ethical clinical trials, fair pricing, access for all and much, much more.
In the midst of organized chaos, there was a sense of solidarity and spirit like I had never felt before. During this year's International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), I felt that camaraderie once more.
The idea behind AIDS2012 Reunion was to provide a venue for community events occurring around Washington, D.C., during AIDS 2012. Fellow activist and friend David Miller had introduced me to the crew at the World AIDS Institute (WAI), the organizers of the event. We jumped on board just nine weeks before the conference to help with the hundreds of details and tasks needing to be done.
We stayed at the Westin City Center, a great hotel about a 15-minute walk from the conference center. The Westin was where some of the AIDS2012 Reunion events were held and was our home base. Also staying at the Westin was Timothy Brown, the first person to be cured of HIV, and his friend Ralfka Gonzalez. Timothy would be hosting some of the AIDS2012 Reunion events.
The conference room we worked out of during AIDS 2012 was conveniently located next to the bar and affectionately dubbed "The War Room." There, along with the staff of WAI -- which included executive director Dave Purdy, Chad Johnson Esq., Noel Short, a godsend of an intern named Angela -- and several others, including fellow TheBody.com blogger Kevin Maloney, we continued to organize and carry out the AIDS2012 Reunion events.
One of the things that made the week so special for me was spending time with Timothy Ray Brown and seeing what he meant to other people. He was what we had all been working for and wishing for and hoping for, for so long. He was cured. Cured of a disease that stole the lives of so many.
Timothy is a frail man, due to the ravages of leukemia and the procedures that lead to him being cured, but his spirit is unstoppable. It took only minutes for me to become very protective of him. We all were. We'd watch as he did interviews, ready to intervene if the reporter asked inappropriate questions. We worried when he looked tired. We watched him as he'd navigate across the room, and we stayed close if people we didn't know approached him.
The week went by quickly, with lots of high points, wine, work and laughs. The most moving moment of the week was the last night of AIDS 2012. We were preparing for an evening event being held downstairs at the Westin. When my husband Martyn and I arrived at the War Room, Dave Purdy met us at the door. He told us, with tears in his eyes, the news of two more people who may have been cured of HIV.
Although I now personally believe it was too early for doctors to have made this determination and announcement at AIDS 2012, at that moment I was speechless. The hope I felt stared back at me in Dave's eyes. He was a veteran activist on the frontlines of the AIDS crisis. He had lived through the worst of it. For us, this news meant that maybe, just maybe, this could be the beginning of the end. I felt hope.
Just as with Timothy's case, the procedure used on the two men couldn't be replicated for us all, but it was progress. The word "cured" was being used again. Would there be more? Could it be all of us someday? We were given a preview of what it would be like when a cure is found.
I sat in the War Room watching as, one by one, people walked in after Dave told them the news. Among those was a second fellow TheBody.com blogger, Aaron Laxton, who had begun spending time in the War Room and pitching in. Everyone had the same look on their face and tears in their eyes.
I know it's too early to tell whether these men are actually cured. I know that even if they are, it isn't a procedure that will work for 99.9% of us. But I also know that that night, in the War Room at AIDS2012 Reunion, I found the hope I needed to keep fighting.
Jeannie Wraight has been an HIV/AIDS treatment activist for more than 14 years. She was a longtime member of ACT UP New York and has participated in countless demonstrations and actions. She has attended more than 75 HIV conferences around the world and writes for several HIV publications. She has sat on many advisory boards, as well as the Board of Directors of Health People, an AIDS service organization in the South Bronx, New York. Wraight has been a blogger on TheBody.com since 2011.