Fighting HIV in the Trump Era: U.S. Advocates Speak Out

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In 2016, much of the conversation among U.S. HIV advocates was about building momentum. A National HIV/AIDS Strategy was in place, anti-stigma and anti-discrimination efforts were moving forward, scientific advances supported pre-exposure prophylaxis [PrEP] and treatment as prevention, and clear backing came from the country's highest political office.

Then, a presidential election happened, and the landscape ahead suddenly looked very different for people engaged in the fight against HIV.

At the 2017 U.S. Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C., in September, we asked HIV community leaders from around the country how their priorities have changed since the election of Donald J. Trump, what they see as the most important challenges to the fight against HIV under a Trump presidency and how they plan to overcome those challenges.

Interviews for this article were conducted by Charles Sanchez, JD Davids and Olivia G. Ford. Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity.

Josh Robbins

Robbins is an HIV activist, speaker and creator of the blog I'm Still Josh.

There are tons of challenges with the current administration that can, and will, affect us as HIV advocates and activists. But, overall, I think there's also a mentality of defeat that we have to overcome. Our work continues, regardless of whether we have an administration that is supportive of HIV awareness, activism and advocacy or not. I really try not to focus on all the things that have been issues, because there are so many with Donald Trump.

If we just focus on those issues, we're never going to get any work done. The way I look at it is, regardless of who is in the administration -- whether it's somebody whom we believe is HIV-friendly or not -- we have lives to save; we have people to get on treatment; we have people whom we are trying to get to undetectable; and we have people whom we're trying to prevent acquiring HIV.

We really don't have time to focus a ton of energy on whether the person in the White House is our friend or not. We have to keep working. The National HIV Strategy is us. We are the National HIV Strategy. That work has to continue. And I'm proud to see a lot of organizations and individual activists doing just that. That's where I'm going to focus.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez


Wakefield is the director of external relations at the HIV Prevention Trials Network.

My major concern is that we have developed global partnerships to fight this epidemic, and we have developed relationships around existing resources that need to increase rather than decrease. Now, instead of working against the virus, we're working to maintain those relationships and resources.

I think that far too many people are operating out of fear and forget we've been through painful moments before. We are resilient people who have rallied together to build against our "enemies." We can still do that. It will take some yelling until people hear us in order to get our "enemies" to know that we're here and this is important to us.

Image credit: JD Davids

Ivory Howard

Howard is a program coordinator on health communications and technical assistance at the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services in Washington, D.C.

My foremost concern is, I don't want anyone to feel hopeless or that there isn't something that they can do. Certainly, there is something they can do: Just put together a strategy and a plan to move forward. No one should feel like there isn't anything they can do.

To paraphrase something President Obama said: The best way not to feel hopeless is to do something. We need to definitely keep doing our work and moving forward.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford

Krista Martel

Martel is the executive director of The Well Project in New York City.

As much as everyone who works in the HIV movement was pretty horrified after the election and were bracing for a lot of bad things to come, I don't think anyone could quite imagine the daily onslaught of news that affects all of our communities on every single level -- in terms of health care, immigration, education, gender rights, women's issues and transgender issues. It makes it hard to keep going on a daily basis.

As leaders in the community, I think we need to accept the amount of fear that people are experiencing. The challenge for me is how to cull that fear. It's hard to stay optimistic, although we do our best to continue to focus on all the positive changes that are happening. But, yes, sometimes it's a challenge.

One thing that I get to feel happy about with the Well Project is that we have been really pushing the theme of hope. There are still ways to find hope through other people's stories -- their successes and their overcoming obstacles. We're providing a light to those who might be feeling overwhelmed or fearful.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford

Marcus McPherson

McPherson is a project coordinator at My Brother's Keeper and a community advocate at Mississippi Positive Network in Jackson, Miss.

I love the United States of America, and I love the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are some areas where we do need to continue on the roadmap that was laid forth by previous administrations -- especially the Obama administration -- to reduce the number of HIV transmissions in the United States.

We really need to focus on the South. I do understand that there's a comorbidity with the opioid crisis. When you look at the South, HIV transmissions are at epidemic proportions. So, I really wish that there would be a significant focus on the South. It is such a small, compact region. It can work. If you provide us with the money, the resources and the tools, we can get it done.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez

Aryah Lester

Lester is the founder of Trans-Miami and manager of Arianna's Center in Miami, Fla.

With Transgender Law Center, one of the things that we've come to realize with this current administration is that we're having to work more on a local and state level. We know right now that probably no good things are going to get passed during this administration, especially regarding trans people and people living with HIV. So, we know we have to work on the local level.

This is what we've also been hearing from all of our activists on the ground, whether we're talking about trans people living with HIV or trans immigrants (both documented and undocumented). From everyone who is coming to us, we're hearing that it's local- and state-level resources that we really need to be fighting for.

Image credit: Charles Sanchez

Sharon DeCuir

DeCuir is the leadership and advocacy coordinator at HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two in Baton Rouge, La.

I'm concerned about all the work that has been done up to this point. I'm concerned that it's being lost in the shuffle. Now, we have to fight extra hard not only to get acknowledgment but to let the current administration know that we're still here. You can't just stop funding, or cut something off, and make us go away. We're still here. We're not going anywhere.

Image credit: JD Davids

Tony Christon-Walker

Christon-Walker is the director of prevention and community partnerships for AIDS Alabama in Birmingham, Ala.

My biggest concern about the current political climate is: When are people going to stop being silent? I feel that, right now, there are a lot of people who are being complicit in other people's behaviors.

I don't think that politics should ever overcome common sense, and I think that's what's happening right now.

Image credit: Olivia G. Ford