Photo by Ajana Orozco – Tattoo of biohazard symbol
Article was updated as of 8:08PM Jan 13 to reflect accurate image descriptions.
Watching the documentary “United in Anger: The History of ACT UP” brought back some of the voices of the organization’s founders, who are now deceased. I was in my late teens at the time that the AIDS epidemic started wreaking havoc in the LGBTQ+ community. I contracted HIV in 1992 when I was 25 years old and joined ACT UP Chicago.
The internet was not born yet, and the fear of AIDS went viral through news media and newspapers. ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed by angry people who were HIV+ and wanted access to drugs that were being produced. FDA rules of getting the drugs from clinical trials on the market took many years. People with HIV did not have many years to wait.
ACT UP members wanted to end the media silence surrounding AIDS, so its activists caused disruptions to get television and newspaper coverage These actions are known as ZAPS.
ACT UP’s logo is a pink triangle with the words “Silence=Death” underneath. I appreciate the powerful symbolism of this logo, and I regret not getting it tattooed on my body at the time. I opted for another powerful image instead: the biohazard symbol. There was such a great stigma attached to someone with HIV, so I was not comfortable getting the pink triangle. The biohazard was something that was personal and self-explanatory. People would often ask if I was a biohazard, and I would just laugh and reply, “Yes, and I work as a phlebotomist.” The conversation usually ended there.
The early days of the HIV regimens required handfuls of pills, AZT, DDI, DDC. The early medications included horrific side effects that made people feel sicker than they were already feeling.
People with HIV now have better access to HIV drugs and are living healthier lives. Not only are the medications tolerable (some even have little to no side effects!), but there are also one-a-day pills. Taking the medications can lower the levels of HIV in the blood system to being undetectable by modern machinery.
According to the CDC, someone who is undetectable not only will live a healthier life, and PrEP will also help “prevent transmission to others through sex or syringe sharing, and from mother to child during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.”
PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, and it can reduce the chances of contracting HIV by 99%, with little to no side effects.
Someone who is HIV+ and maintains an undetectable viral load in their blood is doing their part of preventing the spread of HIV in the world. The same can be said for someone who is on PrEP.
Plenty of stigma remains attached to someone with HIV, including fear and ignorance. People with HIV who are undetectable and people who take PrEP are not the ones to fear. It is the people who are having sex without PrEP or who are having unsafe sex and participating in risky behaviors that can spread HIV that should be feared.
There is still work that needs to be done so that more people have access to PrEP. I see many places offering free HIV testing with slogans saying “Know Your Status.” I have asked some testing places if they have heard of PrEP and most have not. If places are providing HIV testing, why are they not also handing our information on PrEP?
The Ashe Center at UCLA offers PrEP and can easily be accessed by Bruins. There was not that option for me back in 1992 when I became HIV+, so please be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about PrEP or check out GetPrepLA for more information about PrEP.