January 31, 2023

LAS CRUCES — Las Crucens showed solidarity Thursday night to honor the millions of people around the world who have died from the acquired immunodeficiency virus on World AIDS Day and recognize the advances made in treatment over the past few decades were achieved.

While the virus itself has existed for centuries, the first cases of AIDS in the US appeared in the mid to late 1970s. Misunderstandings about how the virus spread led not only to a public health pandemic, but also to a pandemic of negative stigma that stalked those who tested positive or even dared to get tested. This prejudice has hit the LGBTQ+ community hard.

A positive AIDS test used to mean a death sentence, but treatment has come a long way and people can lead largely normal lives with the right treatment. However, the stigma remains.

Community members, social services, the New Mexico Department of Health and people currently living with the virus gathered under the pavilion at Pioneer Women’s Park Thursday evening. Alianza from New Mexico, an HIV charity, hosted the event. Organizers said this is the first annual event to be recognized each year on December 1, World AIDS Day.

“There’s a different urgency these days,” said Buddy Akin, speaking from the perspective of someone living with the virus. “There’s no longer an urgency for people to die like there used to be, but we want to spread these prevention messages and educate people about things like this. And bringing that community together is really important.”

Akin explained to the crowd that he was diagnosed with HIV 30 years ago and was then told by his doctor in Los Angeles that he had two to five years to live. However, he decided to take a “more powerful” approach to his life and health.

“I was afraid,” he said, of acknowledging his sexuality at the time. “I was afraid of sex. I was afraid to admit who I was. I was afraid of who I might be. And I realized, for a moment of clarity after receiving my diagnosis, that the real problem is love. The real issue is self-esteem.”

Today, Akins shares his story and speaks up for others living with the virus.

“I was 13 years old when I started seeing reports in the news about the mysterious deaths that had occurred as a result of ‘gay disease.’ This was also at a time when I was beginning to learn how to navigate a world that was telling me I was going to hell for who I am,” said Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las crucis).

Hamblen highlighted the progress made with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act by the US Senate earlier this week. She pointed to the Gender Equality Act as another big step that needs to be taken. If passed, the bill would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

She also pointed to a discriminatory policy that discourages gay men from donating blood unless they have abstained from sex with other men for at least three months. Hamblen said this policy does not take into account that all donated blood is tested before it is used for a transfusion.

Gina Fullbright, who works in HIV prevention at the New Mexico Department of Health, recalled her days as a nurse in the early years of the pandemic. She described donning a head-to-toe gown, mask, gloves, shoe covers and a hat just to bring a meal to an HIV-positive patient over fears of transmitting the virus.

“A few years ago, the CDC launched a plan to end the HIV epidemic with a goal of reducing the number of new HIV infections by at least 90% by 2030,” she said. “This is achievable through the goal of testing and diagnosing HIV as early as possible after infection, ensuring that those infected have timely access to treatment, and preventing new HIV infection through proven interventions.”

Fullbright said she is specifically involved in providing PrEP, the pre-exposure prophylaxis, an oral pill that is 99% effective in reducing HIV transmission through sexual contact.

Attendees ended the night with a memorial walk through the park honoring those who died from AIDS-related complications and the five people killed in a mass shooting last month at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs .

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Leah Romero is a trend reporter for Las Cruces Sun-News and can be reached at 575-418-3442, or [email protected] @rromero_leah on twitter.

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