25 World AIDS Days Later – Looking Forward!

On an afternoon in August 1987, I learned that I had tested positive for HIV infection. The doctor told me not to worry, “just come back in 6 months and get tested again,” he said. Looking back, he probably didn’t really know what to say.

At that time, physician education was minimal at best, and access to immediate counseling was non-existent. I didn’t go back to that doctor in the 6 months as he suggested. At that time, there weren’t many treatments for HIV and since I didn’t have health insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the medications anyway. As far as I knew then, I had just been given a death sentence. So I just went about my life thinking I would be dead in a year or so.

But a month later, I heard about the first AIDS Walk in Orange County. It was scheduled for November at Mason Park in Irvine. While complaining about the lack of promotion of the event to the bartender at my favorite bar, he challenged me to stop complaining and do something about it. With his help and that of a few others, we held a few fundraisers in the local gay and lesbian bars of Orange County, collecting about $5,000 to donate to the walk. That success propelled me into the world of LGBT and HIV/AIDS fundraising and activism. At 26-years old, with what I thought was a death sentence hanging over my head, I had a mission—I had a purpose—and nothing short of death was going to stop me. By March of the following year, I was a newly elected member of the Board of Directors of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County, and AIDS Walk Orange County soon afterward.

In November of 1988, I was invited by then Laguna Beach City Councilman Bob Gentry to attend a conference of openly gay and lesbian elected officials and community leaders. The gathering was small, about 50 people, among those attending were now Retiring California State Senator Christine Kehoe, and Wisconsin’s newly elected U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. I guess I can say, “I knew them when…”

This past weekend, Thursday through Saturday to be exact, the International LGBT Leaders conference was held in Long Beach. I attended the conference, my first one in 25-years, this time as an openly gay elected official. I attended a three days of intensive leadership training for current LGBT elected/appointed officials and leaders. More than 500 people attended the conference. Speaker of the California State Assembly, John A. Perez, provided opening remarks at both the welcome reception on Thursday and the opening plenary session on Friday.

Chuck Wolfe interviews Sen-Elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) at LGBT Leaders Conference in Long Beach, CA

The afternoon plenary session was for me one of the highlights when U.S. Senator Elect Tammy Baldwin addressed the conference. It was inspiring to be in a room twenty-five years after my first conference, sitting ten-feet away from the first out lesbian to be elected to the United States House of Representatives, and now the U.S. Senate. Senator-elect Baldwin gave an inspiring speech and then sat down for a conversation with The LGBT Victory Fund’s President Chuck Wolfe. Their discussion covered the challenges of her Senate race, and her delight at beating back the millions of dollars that Karl Rove poured into Wisconsin to try to beat her. In her remarks Senator-elect Baldwin pointed out that while her election made history, that wasn’t why she ran.

“I didn’t run to make history, I ran to make a difference.” — Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

At Saturday’s luncheon, I was able to sit at the same table as Senator Baldwin. After listening to our luncheon speaker, openly gay U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand David Huebner, and in between people walking up to her for a quick hello of picture, Tammy and I chatted about Wisconsin in CA, the attack on public workers in California that was launched in Costa Mesa by Jim Righeimer and the OC-GOP, and the success of the community of Costa Mesa in beating back that assault on the middle-class workers of the city. We also reminisced about that conference twenty-five years ago.

In the development of any minority community, resources need to be devoted to capacity building. The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States diverted those resources. Suddenly the LGBT community had to shift it’s focus from the development of a strong and vibrant community, to fighting for the lives of an entire generation of gay men. Equality for the LGBT community took a back seat as community resources were focused primarily on HIV/AIDS prevention education and care.

Congressman Mark Takano

Over the past twenty-five years those resources have gradually been allocated and we are now seeing the return on our investment. Today there are over 500 openly LGBT elected and appointed officials in all levels of government. While we have a long way to go, we are much further along. There are openly LGBT elected officials in all 50 states. California elected it’s first openly gay member of the House of Representatives from the 41st Congressional District, Mark Takano. Mark is also has the distinction of being the first openly gay person of Color elected to the House. Arizona elected the first openly bisexual Congress member Kyrsten Sinema.

Saturday, December 1, 2012 marked the 25th World AIDS Day

Since reporting began in 1981, 11,098 persons have been reported as being infected with HIV disease in Orange County. Of these:

  • 3,126 have been diagnosed with HIV (non-AIDS)
  • 7,972 have been diagnosed with AIDS

As of December 31, 2011, there were an estimated2 6,674 persons living with HIV disease (PLWHD) in the county. Of these:

  • 2,868 were diagnosed HIV (non-AIDS)
  • 3,806 were diagnosed with AIDS

As of December 31, 2011, in calendar year 2011 there were:

  • 170 persons newly diagnosed with HIV (non-AIDS) who have not progressed to AIDS
  • 145 persons newly diagnosed with AIDS; 92 of which were diagnosed with HIV (non-AIDS) in 2011 with 64 diagnosed with HIV and AIDS at the same time (Concurrent Diagnosis)

Saturday, December 1, 2012 marked my 25th World AIDS Day living with HIV disease. I’m no longer looking at a trying to get a life-time of work accomplished before dying at a young age. I’ve outlived my mom, dad, and sister—I’m looking towards retiring some day—Towards finding new ways to serve a much larger community than the LGBT and HIV/AIDS community. I’m looking forward to my next twenty-five years. And like Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin; I’m not out to make history, I’m out to make a difference.