HIV/AIDS and Education: Lessons from the 1980s and the Gay Male Community in the United States

Knowledge is power: If we learned anything in the gay male community during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, it was that. No one knew what had hit us, and people were dying in huge numbers all around us. The community lost friends, colleagues, and intimate partners. Initially mislabeled "gay-related immune deficiency" (GRID), valuable time was lost in responding to the crisis because most felt safe in the belief that they were not at risk. Since early victims were predominantly gay men, the stigma attached to homosexuality in the medical, governing, law enforcement and ecclesiastical institutions became a barrier to understanding, prevention, and treatment.
Fresh out of doctoral study in the mid-1980s, I was part of the first generation of mental health providers to respond to the epidemic in the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California. Nothing in my formal education prepared me for what was needed of me and my colleagues at that time.

Little did any of us imagine that more than twenty-five years later this same virus and its multiple mutations would result in a global pandemic. Nor that we would still be battling the complex and virulent varieties of stigma that afflict cultures around the world toward those most at risk for this disease: the poor, the uneducated, intravenous drug users, and those whose sexual practices are uninformed by current information, or unsanctioned by cultural norms. In many ways, the challenge with HIV/AIDS today is strikingly similar to what it was a quarter of a century ago: to educate -- battling the stifling barrier of societal stigma and enduring myth to empower all citizens with the knowledge they need to remain out of harm's way, or how to best respond once infected.
The pandemic's epicentre has since shifted to sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, to the least educated, disempowered citizens of the developing world, with a devastating impact on human, capital, social, infrastructure, and economic development that will be felt for generations. So many today suffer the ignorance, shame, and stigma that is still attached to the virus, that they don't seek education or treatment, or protect themselves and their loved ones when they can -- all of which can literally be life saving.
In my own experience, recent events have been both sobering and offered cause for hope. With its powerful emphasis on access to education for all citizens and its endorsement by over five hundred institutions around the world, the launch of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) is most encouraging. The challenge is to translate UNAI's ten principles[1] into concrete reality. This is precisely the call to action voiced again and again at the 2010 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), hosted in Doha, Qatar. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah exhorted the attendees from around the world to not stop at talk but, instead, commit themselves to action against both the scandalous lack of access to rudimentary education for over one hundred million school-age children worldwide, as well as the intolerable inequities of gender, class, and economic stature which impair the attainment of basic literacy.
Twenty-five years ago, the gay community was effective in educating various social and professional communities because, being highly educated, privileged, and entitled, it was unafraid to speak the truth and go head-to-head with powerful sectors that were perceived as obstructing access to information, research, treatment, and funding. Unprecedented in prior health crises, the activist group ACT UP (whose motto was "Silence Equals Death") took on the powerful pharmaceutical industry, insisting that profit should not be the ultimate factor for marketing potentially effective antiviral and prophylactic drugs. I was one of many who engaged medical and law enforcement professionals in our communities to educate them about social bias and mistaken notions about homosexuality, so that they would be less afraid to serve the community. The fact that we were able to do so as fellow professionals provided both access and credibility that others would have lacked.
We know that basic literacy alone correlates highly with reduced levels of poverty, infant mortality, and instances of conflict locally and regionally, as well as between nations. Public health, life expectancy, and economic development also correlate positively with increased levels of access to education and success, even at the lowest levels of attainment. With increased education, the HIV/AIDS stigma would diminish exponentially as well. Those of us privileged enough to have attained higher levels of formal education, particularly those of us who have accepted positions of leadership in education, have a profound responsibility to lead by applying the power and moral force of education directly to these challenges and issues.
I'm honoured to serve in two organizations that stand as examples of what we can do collectively to provide leadership in tackling HIV/AIDS-related stigma, and the related larger global issue of access to education for all. Both seek to harness the collective moral force of the presidencies of institutions that serve higher education. One, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) Presidents in Higher Education is newly formed and "advances effective leadership in the realm of post-secondary education, supports professional development of LGBTQ leaders in that sector, and provides education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ issues within the global academy and for the public at large." The other, the International Association of University Presidents, partner to the United Nations in sponsoring the UNAI and to the Qatar Foundation in organizing WISE 2010, exists "to strengthen the international mission and quality of education.in an increasingly interdependent world, and to promote global awareness and competence as well as peace and international understanding through education. It is a unique worldwide platform that facilitates the exchange of professional experience through conferences, seminars, publications, and commissions."