Fighting Against HIV/AIDS and the Trump Administration

December 5, 2017

LOS ANGELES — Welcome to 2017, or, the Trump era, where news consumers suffer from information overload daily, yet there is radio silence when it comes to important subjects such as the 1.1 million Americans who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says are living with HIV/AIDS.


Since taking office, President Donald Trump has taken down the Office of National AIDS Policy website, neglected to appoint a leader for the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, and refused to cooperate with the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, resulting in the resignation of six council members last June.


As the weight of a negligent Trump administration takes effect, HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations and activists focus on spreading awareness and turning discouragement into motivation to find a cure.


Stacy Dawson Stearns, 46, a performer and director living in Los Angeles, attended the LA AIDS Walk benefiting AIDS Project LA, or APLA Health, for the first time this year with the team of three people she brought together called Bodies Are Infinite, which raised over $500.


"Right now, especially in this era of the current president and stuff, there's so much hate and division and homophobia and racism," Stearns said after crossing the finish line with her teammates. "If you look at the people walking the AIDS Walk or any kind of march or any service for any situation, you realize this is not the picture of America. The picture that we're seeing is politicized and hyped. On the ground, though, people don't want to be so backward. That's what's good about media coverage on AIDS Walk or anything having to do with AIDS I think."


Walking with Stearns was Keith Chandler, 40, of LA, an actor and long-time advocate for AIDS awareness who decided to attend the walk this year after not participating for over a decade. 


"The first AIDS Walk I did was, I think, in 1998 in New York City. I did it for about six years consecutively back then and then I, too, kind of stepped back. Not that my awareness dropped, but it was great to get back out here today," Chandler said. "There's a sense of camaraderie that's here. I think it's great to see everybody out here fighting for the same cause with the same energy. It gives me hope."


Trump's disposition on the HIV/AIDS epidemic has driven activists to show up for their causes, as was the case for Stearns and Chandler's third teammate, Jason Schuler, 44, also an actor living in LA.


"I don't really think he's the president. I think he might be sitting in the office of the presidency, but he in no way acts like a president," Schuler said. "That motivated me to come out here. I've been doing more community service and I hope that the fear and abuse will cause more people to rise up and resist that kind of evil."


"It's the discouragement that motivates us to move and to continue with the movement," Chandler said. "This is a phase that we're going through right now politically, we've gone through this for hundreds of years as a country. We've gotten through worse and I think we'll get through this as well. He [Trump] can keep dishing it out and we'll keep pushing back."


Jason Schuler, Keith Chandler, Stacy Dawson Stearns


Another attendee of the AIDS Walk was Scott Graham, 52, the owner of Project Home LA, who ran for the third year in a row, but calls this the most important time to show up.


"I think it's more important than ever," Graham said. "I think there's a whole lot of people who are committed and activated and resisting. It's just that much more important for a community to pull together."


Scott Graham represents APLA Health in his third AIDS Walk LA run.


Marcia Rodriguez, 72, a computer specialist from Culver City donated to and attended the AIDS Walk in LA in support of her son, a gay man who walk this year with his partner of 25 years. Rodriguez described the event as being in spite of Trump and compared his presidency to Ronald Reagan's during the height of the AIDS crisis.


"We're doing this in spite of him, don't you think? I believe that the man who's leading our country is not so much in denial, as in if he ignores it and says it doesn't exist, then that is true in his mind," Rodriguez said. "In the Reagan era and in the eras since then, you have had people in office, majority men, but people in office who were all over 60, 90 percent, 80 percent of our congressmen, they're old, they're homophobic. . .Their biggest secrets are that some of their family members may be homosexual or lesbian."


Angel Ponce, 17, of LA volunteered along with a group of friends from South East High School at the walk as part of a group called Interact. 


"I think it's encouraging others to stand up," Ponce said. "The stuff that he's doing and his mindset. . .I feel like it encourages people to speak out for the rights of everybody."


Angel Ponce (L) with classmates and volunteers from South East High School.


Volunteers, donators, runners, walkers, and spectators gather at the AIDS Walks in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City to keep awareness up despite today's political climate. Non-profit organizations providing support for people living with HIV/AIDS are hopeful that these positive actions will be a match for the administration. 


Becky Hardin, a health educator at Being Alive LA, a non-profit organization focusing on mental health and wellness of people living with HIV and AIDS, said the upset following the presidential election has not provoked an increase in volunteers or donations, but the non-profit is committed to building awareness. 


"[There were] no positive impacts in regards to increased private donations or increased volunteers unlike some of the larger agencies and organizations like Planned Parenthood," Hardin said. "Despite all of the negativity that the current administration created and creates, the emergence of resistance and advocacy groups has been an inspiration and has helped many of our clients find an outlet for their frustrations and/or find sources of support."


Part of resisting the administration is taking the attention off of it, which makes events like the AIDS Walk important for gaining a media presence that is otherwise elsewhere.


"There is no media coverage unless there's a celebrity announcing HIV status or a celebrity death or World AIDS Day every Dec. 1," Hardin said. 


"I think that's one of the major components of organizing a fundraiser like this," Chandler said of the media attention at this year's walk. "We've been battling this epidemic for decades and there comes a point when the recognition for something like this kind of fades to the background. We've come far away since this epidemic started, but there's still a very far way to go to find a cure for this."

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