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Promoting the Dialogue on HIV/AIDS

Christian Castro, a Program Director in the Latino Commission on AIDS, describes the importance of mobilizing communities and sharing stories to better address HIV/AIDS.

I am grateful to be here today with a wonderful group of committed individuals from across the country who have been so graciously asked to come to Washington, DC to talk to White House and federal officials about the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Many people have begun to reflect on this somber anniversary. Many individuals who were living during the early years remember the period of losing many friends, family members and lovers who were dying of a relatively unknown disease within the gay community. I have also listened to these stories and I’m touched by personal loss and grief.  I could never imagine losing so many loved ones so quickly. As one friend told me, “I was going to a funeral about once a week. And after a while, you become emotionally exhausted and numb.” This is a tragic moment in our nation’s history that we should never forget.

As a gay Latino man who is living with HIV/AIDS and who was diagnosed 4 years ago, I grew up in a world where HIV/AIDS has always existed. My generation grew up with discussions about the importance of using a condom. Such information became commonplace in sexual educational courses at school, but more importantly amongst friends and family about using protection. This became part of our lives, about being “safe and protected.” Growing up as a teenager in the 1990s in New York City, I recall going to the Gay Center in the West Village trying to understand and connect with people in the LGBT community. One of the things I vividly remember were the health-related/HIV prevention posters plastered around the walls of the Center. Specifically, these were posters of good-looking gay men posing in a photograph sometimes holding a condom or in a group setting with similar looking individuals. Often, the text would state “use protection,” “be safe,” “it’s better to know.” And for a while, these messages resonated or encouraged dialogue within the community. Perhaps with the discovery of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART) in the 1990s, our collective struggle to overcome HIV/AIDS shifted.

We are realizing that we live in a world where talking about using a condom is simply not enough. A few years ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the revised numbers of annual HIV infections in the United States (approximately 56,000), I was a bit depressed. Depressed because we have come so far and yet there is so much more to do. Far too many individuals are at risk for this disease. We are now beginning to understand we must take a holistic approach in how we provide HIV prevention and care services. We must now acknowledge that individuals are also confronting issues such as lack of employment, discrimination, domestic violence, and homophobia. Through time, the dialogue has begun to include discussion on strategies such as the provision of capacity building assistance (CBA), community mobilization efforts, and Effective Behavioral Interventions (EBIs), as well as research investment in pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP), and HIV clinical trials, to name a few. It is also a new era, where the United States has finally released a National HIV/AIDS Strategy. As a result, our current world has grown and evolved to encompass a larger toolbox to continue to respond to community needs on addressing HIV/AIDS. And as a community, we must take a moment to realize these great strides.

So what can we do to make further inroads? I believe in creating and sustaining meaningful linkages with various communities and networks, such as:
•    Communities of color,
•    Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community,
•    Men who Have Sex with Men (MSM),
•    Communities of Faith,  
•    Women,
•    Youth,
•    For profit organizations/commercial, and
•    Artistic communities

Social networks can be an impactful approach because they influence individual health broadly.  Networks affect disease morbidity and mortality through shared social capital, socioeconomic status, and even community norms. Therefore, by including various different networks we can reinforce the information resources and most importantly the dialogue about HIV/AIDS. This is increasingly important in a world where vast amounts of data are uploaded and shared through technology gadgets and software, such as FaceBook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter. Continuing this dialogue through these new technological advancements will always involve story telling. Stories are powerful methods of sharing lived experiences, but also sharing of information. I hope that our national story is to share with people about HIV prevention, but also to tell them that life is not over if you become positive. Because my life isn’t. 

Christian F. Castro is Program Director of the Latinos in the Deep South Program of the Latino Commission on AIDS.