Since launching our Voice to Voice conversation series, we've tackled lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender literature, Black History Month, bullying, Pride and more.
Today, in honor of World AIDS Day, we bring a conversation between West Hollywood council members John Duran and John D'Amico, two of this nation’s very few HIV positive elected officials. Both sit on the five-member City Council in the 1.9 square mile city of West Hollywood, California.
They sat down earlier this month to chat about living with HIV in 2012, the ways in which the disease is different and evolving, and their responsibility to pivot the discussion and open up the dialogue about emerging options for people affected by HIV.
For more World AIDS Day stories and blogs, click here.
John D'Amico: So, this is a conversation that we’re having in honor of World AIDS Day about the fact that we are two of this Country’s HIV Positive elected officials.
John Duran: Yes. Two out of maybe three. Alright, let’s start with the history. Tell me when you first got involved with HIV, the epidemic’s been here for 30 years, so…
JAD: Well, actually the very first memory I have about HIV is sitting on my sofa with my mother, it was 1981 and it was “that” summer and it was what was reported on the news. I had just graduated from high school and I remember my mother talking about the gay bar that was around the corner from our house and I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember her tying AIDS and gay men and the culture.
And what about you? What’s your first memory?
JD: Well, I was a little beyond high school. When 1981 arrived, I was actually out in the gay bars in West Hollywood, primarily at Studio One and the Motherload. I was just coming into my whole gay sexuality and we started to hear about this strange illness that was showing up in New York and San Francisco but many of us thought that just happens to those really promiscuous guys, not the slightly promiscuous guys here in Los Angeles, but the really promiscuous guys and we just didn’t think that it would ever touch us in Los Angeles.
JAD: But I know in your own history that you were very much involved in what was, maybe, GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) or early AIDS and policy and advocacy in the early 80s, right?
JD: Yeah. Well, my friend Scott Fleener, who I used to go to Studio One with, was the first AIDS death [for me] and he died in June of 1985. Prior to that, I didn’t know anybody who had died. I was sort of starting to hear about people that were getting sick, but it was people that were around my inner circle, it wasn’t in my inner circle until Scott died and he was the first of 104 that would die over the next ten years. And when Scott died, I had never seen death. I had never lost a friend or a family member to death. It was the first time I ever experienced death. And so, it was very traumatic and I was at his memorial, and it was an open-casket Catholic service, my twenty-four year old friend in a casket and I did one of those, you know, Tara moments: “With God as my witness, I will get involved until this thing is over!” Thinking it would be, you know, a year or two of my life and not thirty years plus of my life. How about you?
JAD: Well, I have to say that I lived with a sort of lack of consciousness around HIV, really. Even, in some way, through my own HIV test. I was tested the first and only time in the summer of 1988. And I remember getting that diagnosis and thinking I just don’t think that I’m going to die of this disease.
JD: That’s a big part of it.
JAD: Which, I think, is a healthy dose of unconsciousness and optimism and so that’s sort of where it started. And then, it was seven months later and I went to graduate school and I was at the University of Houston and I said, “What do I need to do?” and she said, “Well, you need to do this, and you need to get a T-cell test and you need to do this, but we don’t do any of that here. This is the student clinic.” And thus began my life as an advocate and I said, “Well, I’m a student. You need to start doing it.”
JAD: And I was the first T-cell test that the University of Houston clinic ever conducted and after that it became sort of a major clinic for people living with HIV in Houston. And, you know, I think my history with HIV is small and incremental, sized, sort of, to my personality in some way. I’ve always been an advocate and I always believe in taking the right action. I really believe in action. But, I was never the “get myself arrested, shake the gates of the White House” sort that you were.
JD: I did that! My early activism, ‘86, was the "No on Prop 64" campaign. Lyndon LaRouche was proposing putting all HIV positive people in California into camps, in the same camps that they used to inter Japanese Americans during World War II out in San Bernardino, Riverside, in the Central Valley. So, it was very real. We beat the LaRouche initiative and then shortly thereafter we had the National March on Washington on October 11th, 1987 where ACT UP was born. I then became one of the attorneys for ACT UP in ’87, defending people as they got arrested. Over the next few years, my law partners Bruce and Tommy both died in the epidemic and I didn’t. I’m still here.
JAD: And speaking of still here, maybe this is a chance for us to talk about here. Here and now. I mean, this is 2012. It’s the twenty-first century and I know you went to the National AIDS Conference and I have been doing my sort of thinking about where West Hollywood positions itself.
JAD: Where we position ourselves as a city in the twenty-first century and as a leader in HIV. I think from my point of view, our city is a little stuck around issues of HIV and stigma and we held on pretty tightly during the AIDS epidemic and we made sure that we did all we could as a city. And now, I think, as you said a while ago during one of your council member comments, it’s time for us to pivot a little and look at the kinds of things that the city might do because we have, what, 40 percent of our population…..
JAD: ...is gay men. Or gay and bisexual men or transgender men, men who have sex with men, and (approximately) 10 percent of the city is HIV positive and I think addressing that, making our city a safe place, a stigma-free place, for people with HIV, I think starts with us...
JAD: ...and maybe finishes with us. And takes a long journey all the way through everyone who lives here and visits here.
JD: Here’s one of the big challenges: new infections, male-to-male, are on an increase in Los Angeles County even though, you know, we’ve been using that [adage] “condoms, condoms, condoms.” So it means re-adjusting strategies and one of the things you and I have been talking about is creating a virus-free community.
JAD: Right. Reducing the community viral load.
JAD: And that comes from getting tested and getting into treatment and then adhering and paying attention to the way in which you take care of yourself.
JD: Right. Well, that’s it. You have to be compliant. I mean, we’re trying to reinforce this message: Get tested. If you’re positive, get on meds. If you’re on meds, get down to undetectable levels and then be compliant with your medications. But we have this extra overlay called the crystal meth epidemic. In West Hollywood, people who are doing meth are not thinking about taking their meds once or twice a day. So then, they’re not able to reach undetectable levels, they build up resistance to the medications that exist and we end up with another round of new infections. There’s more that we can do in West Hollywood. Yeah, use a condom, safer sex and get on meds and become undetectable. But if we can get the community’s viral level down to undetectable levels, like you say, then that means less transmission.
JAD: Right. And I think there’s more that’s about the culture of HIV in our community and trying to make West Hollywood a place that’s safe for people with HIV and I think that might even be a loaded statement, but, you know, we all have seen online people not wanting to be associated with people who are HIV positive or have sex with people who are HIV positive. As long as that exists, we send a message that it’s something not to talk about, it’s something not to be open about and I think it’s in that silence, once again we return to the same metaphor that silence equals death, and it may not be death but it’s a cause that does not get attended to and that cause is taking care of ourselves, taking care of our community. And I think our community is larger than just the gay, bisexual, transgender, people who live here in West Hollywood. You know, what is it, 200,000 people visit West Hollywood every week?
JAD: That’s a lot of people that come through here and we could have an effect. We could take charge of the community narrative around HIV.
JD: Well, West Hollywood is one of the red hot zones of the epidemic. I mean, when we were keeping track of AIDS deaths, West Hollywood was the big red dot in the middle of Los Angeles County, along with South Central.
JAD: And that’s still the case. If you look at the LA County statistics, you really see that it’s right here. And it’s both the people who live here in West Hollywood and the surrounding neighborhoods, but it’s also the people who drive here to go to our bars and clubs and spend an hour, or the weekend, and I think that’s where some of our growing edge is. Learning to communicate that West Hollywood takes seriously HIV and our, sort of, twenty-first century plan for reducing the viral load in the community and making stigma-free associations for those of us, like you and me, who are out in the community and for everyone who visits.
JD: Yeah. Let’s talk about that stigma for a second because that’s a really important thing. So, out of the hook-up sites around West Hollywood: Grindr, Adam-for-Adam, you know, the various hook-up sites, there will be people who say: HIV negative: you be, too. And, you know, when I confront some of these guys and say, is that your screening device? You just assume that someone you’re about to engage in casual sex with is 1) going to be honest or 2) knows his status and that’s going to be your screening device before you decide whether or not you’re going to be barebacking with someone that you’re just meeting online for the first time?
JAD: Right. Right.
JD: You know, I can’t tell you the number of guys who have used that as their filter who are now positive. Okay? Or other guys who start dating somebody and believe that they are in a monogamous relationship and therefore can now do, can abandon the condoms and they end up positive, too, because of some bad decision making. So, it’s not a foolproof screening device and yet what happens is guys who are positive become stigmatized as the other. You know?
JD: And the only foolproof 100 percent [solution] is personal responsibility for each individual whether you are a negative or a positive. You know, for a negative person it means practicing safe sex 100 percent of the time until you are absolutely sure that you are in a trusted relationship where there is monogamy and then if you decide to bareback, then that’s your choice.
JAD: Right. Actually, when people ask me about that, I always say it’s the 30-30-30-30 rule: that if you meet someone and you’re having sex in 30 minutes, you should probably use condoms. Right? And if it’s 30 hours later, maybe you know their HIV status.
JD: Or their last name.
JAD: Yeah. And if it’s 30 days later, maybe you both went and had a test together.
JAD: And if it’s 30 months later, you pretty much have it down.
JAD: And for me, I mean, I’ve been in a relationship for 20 years with my husband. We’re both HIV positive. We have a sex life that is very consistent with who we are and what is going on with us. But I think there’s never enough opportunity, or opportunities taken, for two people who are HIV negative to have a life in which they don’t use condoms. And we know that goes on. Of course it does. And if we’re talking about marriage, for real, across America, I mean, we can’t say: we need to be thought of as equal and we need to be able to get married but we still are not equal because we have to use condoms through our own marriage. I mean, that’s like a broken promise to gay men across the country. And I think that’s the kind of thing that starts here in West Hollywood because we have to have a much deeper, richer set of conversations around when people are using condoms now, because we know that people don’t use condoms 100% of the time.
JAD: Some people do. The vast majority doesn’t. But we also don’t create any space for people who don’t want to.
JAD: There’s PReP and PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis and pre-exposure prophylaxis, and we need to have those conversations. We need to make space for people to live their lives and I think until we render visible all the opportunities, all the ways in which HIV negative people can take care of themselves and all the ways in which HIV positive people can take care of themselves and the community can take care of itself, I think we’re really not having the whole conversation. And it is 2012, it’s not 1996. You know, David Ho changed the world in 1996 and we need David Ho 2.0. The world has deconstructed itself and so has AIDS, so has HIV and people will find themselves at different places around the continuum at different times in their lives and we need to learn to say that’s OK.
JD: Right. I think the question, too, for HIV positive people like us is when to disclose. Right?
JAD: Oh. For sure.
JD: I’m dating. Whatever that means. And so, you know, trying to figure out when I disclose my HIV status and under what circumstances is always a challenge for those of us that are out there and positive. You know, I know, for example, that deep kissing is not a way to transmit HIV. But once you get into intercourse, and intercourse is defined as vaginal or anal intercourse, well that’s where risk factors go up through the ceiling and disclosures have to happen. And so I think that’s part of it, too, you know, the positives taking responsibility for disclosing and under what circumstances. But I think what’s really important is that we live in a bubble in West Hollywood. Right?
JD: And you and I are having a frank conversation right now about human sexuality and HIV but if you leave West Hollywood and you head into the outlying areas of greater Los Angeles or Orange or Ventura Counties, these conversations become very different. And, you know, because I’m a criminal defense lawyer, the criminalization of HIV does pop up from time to time in the courts. And I’ve had to come out as an HIV positive person to prosecutors and judges who have very little to no information about HIV and its transmissibility, even today. And that’s one of the things I think that, as elected officials, that we’re called upon to do from time to time, is educate other elected who are making policy around HIV and AIDS and are still relying on facts or evidence or assumptions from ten or fifteen or twenty years ago.
And I do think that we, and our calculations, and our optimism that you speak about, that we are in the final chapters of HIV. It will be five years, ten years, fifteen years, I don’t know. It’s within reach.
JAD: I think so.
JD: And that’s the first time that I’ve been able to say that, and it’s not just me saying it, but the International Conference on AIDS is saying it, top scientists are saying it. The light at the end of the tunnel is not the train coming at us to hit us. It’s actually the light at the end of the tunnel to finally get out of the epidemic.
JAD: Right. And I think what we can do as elected officials in West Hollywood is we can re-think this for our city: how our social services are delivered in terms of people living with HIV, how we target prevention messages, how we work with our county partners and our state partners and our federal partners around what happens here in West Hollywood as a hot spot. And I think that’s our charge, John. You and I. We need to do that and I’m sure our colleagues will follow us if we ask. And I think we’re going to ask because it’s clearly important that we show some leadership. And some of that leadership is to acknowledge that the disease is different, and to acknowledge that West Hollywood is still an epicenter, maybe now more than ever, and that we can have a real effect if we take some action.
JD: That’s our challenge.
JAD: Anything else we need to say? Oh, we were going to ask other HIV positive elected officials to give us a call -- confidentially or publicly.
JAD: Right. Right on. Thanks, John.
JD: Thanks, John.