Aaron M. Laxton

Advocate | Writer | Social Commentator.

Op-ed: Are You Responsible for My HIV?

HIV advocate Aaron Laxton on how the influence of friends can make the difference when a person faces risky behavior.

If I knew that some of my closest friends are shooting, snorting, or sleeping their way toward potential HIV infection (or worse, death), would my inaction make me indirectly responsible?

We have all seen the commercials that teach us to stop a drunk person from getting behind the wheel, but that same action should apply to other dangerous actions. We have an obligation to intervene when our friends engage in behaviors that are dangerous and potentially deadly. If we expect to stop new HIV infections or deaths caused by addiction to drugs such as crystal meth and heroin, then we must start having honest, clear conversations with one another.

Recently, Glee fans were shocked to hear of the sudden death of Cory Monteith, the actor who played the lovable character, Finn. Monteith, who made his own personal struggle with addiction public and entered rehab earlier this year, lost his battle with addiction after overdosing on a combination of heroin and alcohol. Late last year, we lost Spencer Cox, a renowned AIDS activist who struggled with addiction to crystal meth. Both of these lives and countless others serve as examples and highlight the need for friends to be patient, understanding, and willing to talk, instead of remaining silent or avoiding confrontation.

In my own life, what started simply as something I would do while out dancing with friends soon became an overpowering addiction that wrecked every aspect of my life, and led to me contracting HIV. I could have easily been another Monteith or Cox. My life while using meth consisted of trolling hookup sites looking for my next trick, all while looking for my next fix. There were never enough tricks and there was definitely never enough meth. Psychologically, I had devolved to a state of amphetamine-psychosis, a consequence of chronic amphetamine use. Symptoms mimic those of schizophrenia and include hallucinations, hearing voices, paranoia, mental confusion, loss of time, emotional flatness, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness just to name a few. Essentially, during the height of my addiction I would have loved for anyone to have told me how much I was hurting myself.

Luckily even without the help of friends and family I was able to address my addiction, although by that time I had lost my new truck, home and employment. While it was not easy, I found support in other recovering addicts, since they understood exactly what I was going through. Since June 2011, I've traveled across the United States sharing my experiences both as a person living with HIV and as an addict in recovery, and one thing that has stood out to me is that people are still using crystal meth.

Still, I'm amazed to see the headlines for “Party N Play” or “PNP" — code for fellow tweakers — whenever I log onto any hook-up app or website. Bathhouses are filled with guys who are doped up on chemicals purchased from warehouse stores; the actions they engage in while under the influence create a breeding ground for HIV infection. My knowledge of what goes on in bathhouses comes with experience: I am most likely a card-carrying member of your bathhouse. I have no shame in disclosing the fact that I frequent bathhouses around the world, because regardless of your social standing we are all equalized when we are wandering those halls in a towel looking for our next trick. The reality is that the bathhouses are filled with your friends who slip in after a night of partying. You may never know about it because they probably think you'll judge them. And there's a good chance these friends are also not wearing condoms when they have sex.

We need to face it that there are two messages being told. The most prevalent and politically-correct message is that condoms need to be used each and every time that you have sex. The reality is that not everyone wants to use condoms and consequently we are not wearing them. One of reasons that no one freely admits that we are not using condoms is because we do not want to be shamed or shunned. While condoms offer protection against exposure to HIV they are just one of many tools that we have currently. If we are truly committed to reducing shame and having a conversation about reducing new HIV infections, we must end the stigma surrounding unprotected sex.

It is time for us to also have these tough conversations with each other regarding risk-reduction practices and prevention outside of simply putting a condom on. It is time to wake up and recognize that beating people, let alone addicts, over the head with the “condom” message isn’t cutting it. A better conversation to have with these friends who refuse to use condoms might be to ask whether they have heard of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) or what other risk-reduction practices they can use.

It all boils down to talking to one another. Free of judgement. Free of shame. Are you responsible for your friend’s HIV infection? That is only something that you can answer. Ultimately each person is responsible for their own actions, but as friends and family, don’t we have a higher responsibility to intervene when a person is engaging in behavior that can lead to HIV infection and in some cases death? How many more people need to die before we start talking about the real issues at hand?

AARON M. LAXTON is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel "My HIV Journey" and is a community advocate for the AIDS Clinical Trials Group.

I Am a Survivor of Intimate Partner Violence

By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

September 26, 2014

My name is Aaron M. Laxton. I am an award-winning International HIV/AIDS activist. I am a social worker, a writer. What I want you to know, however, is that I am also a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV). Intimate partner violence can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sex, gender or orientation.

By now, we have all seen the video from the elevator that showed NFL star Ray Rice punching the woman who is now his wife in the face. When this video was made available to the public, the outcry was swift and quite severe. It also helped to create a national dialogue regarding Intimate Partner Violence that is occurring and most times never discussed.

I soon found myself reflecting on my own history of domestic violence (DV) as well IPV. My earliest memories are of being shuffled around in the dark of midnight, one women's safehouse to another. One stands out especially well. There were almost thirty kids all under the age of ten or so and we were all crammed and huddled into a single living room, windows blacked-out, furniture was sparse.

This particular day there was a knock at the main door leading into the living room.

All of us could sense that something was wrong. The knock was too firm, too loud.

This wasn't just a regular knock… it was the knock of someone looking for their wife or girlfriend and their child. We knew the drill. According to the American Psychological Association, 74 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner (spouse, common-law spouse, ex-spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend). Of these, 96 percent were women killed by their intimate partners.

Almost in unison, we all started to cry in fear. We were quickly silenced and told things to try and divert our attention. Eventually after a period of time the person behind that well-locked door moved on.

This is just one of the many memories of the things that my mother had to do in an effort to get away from my father who was both physically and verbally abusive. The culmination of years of abuse and neglect came during one particular fight when my father would attempt to kill my mother.

As a young, gay male I found myself in a relationship that was textbook domestic violence.

From the mileage on the car, to my text messages & voice mails… everything was monitored. I was isolated from friends and family. I often hear people say that a person who is being abused should simply make the choice to leave and not allow themselves to be a victim. My response is this; no one wakes up one morning and says "I want to be a victim of domestic violence today." I can only speak to my own situation; through years of slowly gaining total control of my environment, emotions, and other things, I was right where he wanted me. I was a person who had zero self-confidence, I was in the midst of addiction (drugs that were provided to me by him), I was isolated from any support and I had zero access to money. Although I was working a full-time job, he had total control of the finances. I had zero control of anything. This wasn't something that occurred overnight but rather it was a slow and constant process.

Eventually, I was able to leave that relationship; however, when I did finally leave I was broken emotionally, spiritually and I left with nothing. This abuse would add to an already broken foundation that was built as a child and would ultimately create the perfect scenario to put myself at risk of becoming infected with HIV. Speaking only for myself, I engaged in reckless behavior because I simply did not care enough about myself to try and protect myself. This is further evident when I admit that I have overdosed from various drugs four times and been alcohol-poisoned three times.

I was a perfect person to be victimized. I now work to teach people that you do not have to be a victim. You have total control over your own actions and for many of us that is a hard pill to swallow.

As I travel the country, I come into contact with thousands of people. An overwhelming concern that is faced by those living with HIV is a perceived inability to have and maintain healthy sexual and intimate relationships. Whether it is stigma, fear of rejection or the fear of prosecution as a result of draconian and outdated HIV-specific laws, many people who are living with HIV choose to simply isolate themselves from the world rather than risk rejection. Often, many who are living with HIV allow themselves to settle for relationships which include DV or IPV. The reasoning is that it is better to have a bad relationship rather than no relationship at all. It is only as we learn more about HIV and how to manage our lives that we learn of that HIV does not have to inhibit our ability to have healthy relationships which are free of DV/ IPV. Certainly not all people living with HIV are susceptible to IPV; however, it is something that we need to be aware of.

My name is Aaron M. Laxton. I am an award-winning International HIV/AIDS activist. I am a social worker, a writer. What I want you to know however is that I am also a survivor of intimate partner violence. Intimate partner violence can happen to anyone regardless of age, race, sex, gender or orientation.

There is hope although you might not be able to see it. There are resources in your community that will assist you to get out of the situation which you are in. The first step, however, is to realize that you deserve better.

Ferguson, Missouri, Activism and ACT UP
By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

August 18, 2014

By now, Ferguson, Missouri has gained international attention. Being a 4th generation-resident of St. Louis, I wish the attention was for reasons other than police brutality, riots and the death of an unarmed teenager. Last night, day seven of the movement, I decided to venture down to Ferguson. For those of you who are unaware, Ferguson is in St. Louis County, located about 15 minutes north of downtown St. Louis.

I had seen the media accounts of what was going on in Ferguson, however I needed to see first-hand. I parked my car in a Walgreens parking lot north of the now-famed QT gas-station that was looted and burned earlier in the week. I strapped on my camera and gear then set out on the trek, walking south on West Florissant Blvd. I made my way through a line of police officers that consisted mostly of Missouri State Highway Patrol and St. Louis County Police. Soon I start to encounter people of all ages who are carrying signs with various messages. The message was clear; Mike Brown, the teenager at the center of this movement, is very much alive and well in most people's memory. After walking for about 5-10 minutes I start to get closer to the QT and the scenes made famous by national media. The frustration and determination of those in attendance was palpable.

Through the course of this situation in Ferguson, I have been amazed by people's varying reaction. I have been astounded to see responses criticizing those who are protesting, especially from people living with HIV. This article is not seeking to justify any aspect of the details of the case; that is for the Department of Justice to investigate and make appropriate recommendations. I do, however, think it is important for people to remember that there was a time when ACT UP engaged in civil disobedience and protests -- protests which seemed very radical at the time. I am not suggesting that ACT UP was a bunch of rioters, looters and troublemakers; however, I am sure there were some that held this viewpoint. I mean, protestors stormed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Rockville, MD. Traffic was interrupted throughout New York and other cities. Calculated and coordinated direct actions were planned out and executed with a precision that made those in positions of authority take notice. For the first time since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we were no longer going to accept the scraps that were given to us. We were people and we demanded respect and treatment which we knew would save our lives.

When people see an injustice whether it be the treatment of those living with HIV/AIDS or police brutality then some would say that there is an obligation to address it in an effort to bring about change. Today, I have access to life-saving medications thanks in no small part to the direct actions that ACT UP took. Today, most who are protesting in Ferguson, Missouri are doing so with the intent to bring about a future where police brutality is greatly-reduced. While it is easy to get derailed by the destructive actions of a few, we must keep our sight set on the real task at hand.

As I marched with 400-500 demonstrators through Ferguson, Missouri I was reminded of various marches I have participated in with ACT UP. Whether or not you agree with facts of the case that you have been fed by the media, you should recognize the importance of what is taking place. People within a community have engaged in constitutional rights of assembly and of free speech. As a result of these issues such as police brutality, militarization of police forces as well as freedom of speech are all going to be addressed.

There was a time when those living with HIV were viewed as sub-humans who should be sterilized and segregated. Regarding police brutality, remember it wasn't too long ago in Michigan where a woman was arrested with not disclosing she was HIV positive to a police officer who was conducting a traffic stop.

As we have fought for our rights as people living with HIV to be treated fairly, we must now join the fight of others who are fighting for their own freedoms and liberties. Democracy exists with a demand that those who enjoy it's liberties to ensure that all get to share in it. Below is a poem from Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.

-- Martin Niemöller

I Am Considered an HIV Criminal

By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

March 25, 2014

"Why should I care about HIV criminalization? People who purposely expose others to the virus should face justice." This response is nothing new. By now, I am well-acquainted with answering the question. As an HIV-positive male who is living in a serodiscordant relationship, prosecution under HIV criminal statutes is an ever-present fear. It does not matter that my partner is aware of my HIV positive status or that I am undetectable and on antiretroviral therapy. Conversely, if you are living with HIV you need to be aware that HIV criminalization impacts you.

The reality is that HIV criminalization laws go directly against the ideas of reducing stigma. Publicly, we create campaigns and memes that tell us that "HIV is not a death sentence," yet 34 states have laws that say it is. It is easy for us to think that it is somehow acceptable to prosecute those who deliberately expose/transmit HIV, however, any prosecution of HIV goes directly in the face of reducing stigma. The mere accusation of transmitting/exposing others to HIV creates barriers to achieving a fair trial. This is due to the sensationalized media exposure that these cases receive as well as the lack of adequate, quality legal representation. In many cases, public defenders who serve as legal counsel do not understand the science and they lack the resources to provide an adequate defense. Additionally, in HIV criminalization cases, a jury is asked to consider statistical data and medical jargon, which for even the most seasoned advocate can be daunting. Criminalizing HIV only serves to perpetuate fear and stigma. Below are a few points to ponder as we engage in the conversation of HIV criminalization.

  1. Current laws fail to take into account new research such as HPTN 052/PARTNERS study which revealed that a person who is undetectable presents less than a 1% risk of transmitting the virus.
  2. A person convicted under most HIV criminal statutes is classified in the same category as a child rapist, sexual predator or other sex offender, which requires up-to lifetime sex offender registration.
  3. A person can be convicted of exposing another person to HIV yet other STDs and hepatitis C face no such punitive action.
  4. A majority of HIV criminal prosecutions are initiated by jaded ex-sexual partners as retaliation.
  5. Current criminal statutes were written in 1981 at a much different time in the epidemic when fear was the prevailing emotion.
  6. If we agree that HIV infection is not a death sentence, how can we justify prosecuting someone for attempted murder?
  7. In many states, a person convicted under HIV criminalization laws faces a sentence more severe than if they were to commit a more heinous crime than murder.
  8. As an HIV positive person in a serodiscordant relationship, even though my partner is aware of my status, I could face prosecution under my state's laws.
  9. In most states, an HIV positive test serves as enough intent for the sake of prosecution.
  10. There has not been a single prosecution of an HIV positive person accused of exposing/transmitting the virus to another HIV positive person.

The message that I have for people who are living with HIV is to know the laws in your state. Also disclose your status, then ensure that you can prove that you disclosed. Never trust that just because you are in a relationship with someone that your relationship will always exist.

The first-ever "HIV is NOT a Crime" conference will be taking place June 2-5 in Grinnell, Iowa. Please consider joining myself and other advocates as we work to address HIV criminalization across the United States. You can register and learn more about the conference at www.hivisnotacrime.com. You may also learn more about your rights and efforts nationwide by visiting www.seroproject.com.

By Aaron Laxton

February 21, 2014

There is a new battle raging in the deep-south that without doubt could have implications for everyone living with HIV/AIDS across the United States. Louisiana has found itself in a battle between those living with HIV/AIDS and insurance providers, namely Blue Cross/Blue Shield (BCBS).

The Affordable Care Act, which was enacted earlier this year, has served to leave patients living with HIV/AIDS in the cold. Transitioning from statewide AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) and other assistance programs has been anything but seem-less. Blue Cross/Blue Shield Louisiana has arbitrarily decided not to accept third-party payments; this is generally how those living with HIV/AIDS obtain assistance through Ryan White Care Act. According to Robert Darrow who started the online petition, "The state's largest carrier is rejecting checks from a federal program designed to help these patients pay for AIDS drugs and insurance premiums, and has begun notifying customers that their enrollment in its Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act) plans will be discontinued."

As outlined in a Press Release put out by Blue Cross Blue Shield Louisiana, the insurer states

"Effective March 1, 2014, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana will no longer accept third-party payments for our individual members' premiums. Only the policyholder or an immediate relative (by blood or marriage) or legal guardian of the policyholder (e.g. parent, spouse, sibling) can pay for that policyholder's healthcare premium."
Three of the four health insurers in Louisiana offered through the state-ran Market Place will now essentially deny insurance to people living with HIV who need assistance to be insured.

Why should you be concerned about this if you are not living in Louisiana? The fear among advocates and AIDS advocacy organizations is that the trend that is being tested in Louisiana will set precedence which will become the new standard nationwide. Mark S. King, Kevin Maloney and Dorian Gray Alexander have all taken the fight directly to the insurer via an online media and a petition through Change.org. Additionally advocates in southern-border states are closely monitoring the situation.

Should Blue Cross Blue Shield succeed the future of AIDS assistance programs for medical and prescription coverage could change for those who are the most vulnerable. If you have not done so already be take a moment to sign the online petition and let you voice be heard today.

HIV Prevention and "Click It or Ticket": Are New Devices Safe?

By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

January 27, 2014

After doing research on new safety devices being proposed to protect drivers and passengers of automobiles, I have come to a conclusion: There is no need for an increase in new safety devices.

There are several reasons why we don't need more safety devices and quite honestly it angers me when people suggest that we do. It is all about choices. If people follow laws, traffic signs and speed recommendations then we would see a huge reduction in traffic accidents and mortality rates.

Additionally, as drivers embrace new safety devices such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and seat belts it will obviously promote and ultimately facilitate an increase in reckless and careless driving. Not to mention that these new (and unproven) "safety" measures will also mean that people are driving more. This will inherently increase the statistical odds of more accidents.

Am I saying that accidents never happen? No! For the most part however, people who follow the rules rarely get into accidents. There is also the issue of compliance. If people truly want to avoid auto accidents, then all they have to do is follow the rules of the road. These new "safety devices" that are being proposed by certain groups have only proved to be effective when used.

These same groups should also talk about the risk of injury posed to drivers and passengers of the vehicle should an airbag be deployed or anti-lock brakes lock up during a skid. There have been reports of side effects such as bruises, contusions, whiplash and even death as a result of the deployment of these new safety devices. More research needs to be conducted concerning how we can reduce these risks and increase driver/passenger safety-device utilization.

Next there is the cost of implementing use of these new "safety devices." How will it be paid for? Will insurance companies and auto-manufacturers be receptive to these new costs? To some extent this simply looks like an effort by the auto industry to bolster market share and to pad the pockets of shareholders. What data we have showing the efficacy of safety devices in automobiles has all been driven by the auto industry, so is there an issue of biased data sets?

In my opinion, we should not be pouring more money into safety measures that might work but instead use that money for increased education. Drivers simply need to use better choices when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Now re-read this entire article and consider if this entire piece were about HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).The above stated arguments are the same ones that I hear each and every day regarding the use of PrEP. Many in the community feel as if we simply do not need anything other than condoms to fight and end new HIV infections. The "condom-only" message is falling on deaf ears and if we are serious about addressing those who are at greatest risk of becoming infected with HIV then we must embrace new technologies such as PrEP. We must consider PrEP even if there are those in the community who rail against anything other than condoms.

These are the same people who believe that the risk of harm/side effects exceeds the potential benefits. They seemingly fail to inform people that when taken consistently PrEP has been proven to reduce HIV infection by up to 99 percent. Just as risk-reduction (following traffic laws/speed limits) lowers the risk of having an auto accident, we must also adopt safety measures for those who will not embrace traditional risk-reduction strategies (condoms). By continuing to perpetuate the ill-conceived notion that "condoms alone" are going to end new HIV infections, you sound just as ridiculous as the statements presented at the start of this article.

By Aaron Laxton

December 6, 2013

I rolled over and completed my morning stretch. The first thing that I reached for, as I always do, was my iPhone. I went through my morning ritual of checking emails, text messages and then making my rounds through social media. My notifications on Facebook indicated that a message was left in the early morning hours and it was as follows: "AIDS helped me lose 35lbs."

It took me a moment to process as I read the screen. Clearly, I must have been reading this notification wrong since it stated that this Facebook status had been posted by a friend. This was not like a friend I had never met, that simply existed in the imaginary world of Facebook-land; he is an actual friend. An actual friend had posted an ignorant line from the popular cartoon South Park on my Facebook wall. He did know that I am an international HIV/AIDS activist, blogger, radio show host and above all else a person living with HIV, right?

I quickly read through the responses and most were rebuking the status. There were comments from people living with HIV, those who had lost loved ones to AIDS-related illness as well as friends of mine simply coming to my defense. As quickly as it all started the original poster retorted that he was extremely intoxicated and very apologetic for posting it. However it got me to thinking: Is AIDS funny? Have we reached a point in our culture where the death of millions of people is funny? Is AIDS nothing more than a punch line to a joke that is told at parties?

I do not believe that the person that posted this comment had malicious intent; he was simply regurgitating things that he had heard on television. AIDS, if mentioned in mainstream media, is nothing more than a sound bite far removed from the tragedy that befell our nation and the world. It seems as if the millions that have died and continue to die globally fade, without afterthought to their pain or suffering. We simply step over their bodies as we march on. As medications have gotten better and people have started to live longer, the need to view AIDS in a sinister light has decreased, or so some might believe.

According to numbers released by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) last year alone in the United States there were 50,000 new HIV infections, with the largest group being African-American and Latino youth ages 13-24. Globally there are approximately 2.5 million new HIV infections every year with 50,000 deaths according to the World Health Organization. I suppose that I fail to see the humor in these statistics.

For the first time in the pandemic we are equipped with new prevention tools such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) which when taken as prescribed reduces the risk of contracting HIV by as much as 90 percent. Studies are currently underway to evaluate efficacy when doses are missed however initial data-sets looks as if PrEP provides between a 30-50 percent reduction in risk when doses are missed. Not to mention thatHPTN 052 showed that the risk of transmitting the virus from HIV-positive individuals who are virally suppressed drops by up to 96 percent.

Instead of AIDS service organizations and providers working together to get the message out about this new prevention tool, there is in-fighting. One of the largest AIDS service organizations, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has single-handedly made it their mission to disregard this new science and instead stick with a "condom only" prevention strategy perpetuated Michael Weinstein. Is a shift at hand though? Impulse Los Angeles has made a great effort to bring attention to the issue of PrEP and other important topics, but will the message be lost since it is affiliated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation?

The need for credit and accolades trump the task at hand and as we fight amongst ourselves, the next generation of HIV patients is being born and spoon-fed the belief that "AIDS is funny.

What if Ryan White Had Been Black?

By Aaron Laxton
From TheBody.com

October 16, 2013

Unless you have been under a rock recently, you are aware that the fastest-growing group of new HIV infections in the United States is African Americans and Latinos age 13-24, according to the Center for Disease Control. So where is the public outrage? Might it be more if it were a group that mainstream society saw as more sympathetic that was being affected or infected?

In the late '80s a hemophiliac from Kokomo, Indiana contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. As a result of his AIDS diagnosis, Ryan White and his entire family faced unprecedented harassment, hate and bigotry all in the name of fear and ignorance. White soon became the face of HIV whether he wanted to be or not. He chose to use his story to fight injustices faced by those living with HIV. Regardless of how a person had contracted HIV, Ryan fought to fight the injustices that were endured by all. Celebrities from around the world befriended Ryan for various reasons but mostly because Ryan was a unique young man who was kind-hearted and thought of others over himself.

Having met Jeannie White-Ginder, Ryan's mother, it is not hard to see where he got his demeanor and kind heart from. I certainly mean no disrespect to Ryan or his memory however I must ask the question: "What if Ryan White would have been black?"

Prior to Ryan, the face of HIV and AIDS had been homosexuals and drug users. Before there was ever a governmental response to HIV and AIDS there was a response mounted by friends and families of gays who were dying in record numbers. For the first time however, AIDS appeared in the form of a young, white boy who contracted HIV through no fault of his own. He became infected through a blood transfusion that was meant to treat his hemophilia.

In the crisis that we are facing today there seems to be a trend that HIV has once again returned to populations that mainstream society seemingly does not care about. HIV has once again been relegated to the ghettos and slums across the United States; stigma within communities of color creates an environment in which new HIV infections occur but where they are not talked about. How can we expect communities of color which are barely surviving to mount a defense against HIV and AIDS?

Had Ryan White been a black or brown boy with HIV, would he have received the media attention that he received? Would he have gone on to become the face or reformation within the movement which subsequently led to legislation that affects hundreds of thousands of Americans each year?

It is time as a country that we have the same passionate response for our youth in communities of color as we do for our children from Sandy Hook. When we start to invest in the youth in communities of color, at the same level as their white peers, this will empower them. When provided the resources, these youth will be able to turn the tide of new infections within their own communities the same way that Ryan White was able to single handedly challenge the status quo of the Indiana Board of Education, Town of Kokomo, and a nation that will forever be in his debt.

Murdered or Martyred: Spencer Cox's Final Contribution

By: Aaron M. Laxton, HIV-Infected Queer Activist and Blogger


Weeks ago the status feed on my Facebook and other social media was captivated by one particular name... Spencer Cox. Throughout the days following his death activists from around the world shared stories and articles in reference to Spencer. As I opened up my email there was a plethora of condolence emails which all began something like this: "Loss of a pioneer...", most shared in what capacity the person sending the email had interacted with Spencer. 

As information regarding his drug addiction and personal struggle with post-traumatic stress became public, the world got a glimpse of the bruised and battered warrior who stood valliantly behind the armor. Spencer saturated himself in the science of HIV and is directly credited by Peter Staley, a fellow AIDS activist who was featured on "How to Survive a Plague", for saving the lives of over eight-million patients; a result of his efforts to standardize protocols which were adopted by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) which brought about the protease inhibitor.

In the plague era, Cox found himself in a time before society had a name for what is now called AIDS. It first appeared as a rare cancer seen in eleven gay men, for a time it was called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) and finally would become AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Friends and lovers were falling one by one at first and over time those numbers increased to staggering, alarming rates. Although everyone wanted to believe that they would live, the reality was that while death called upon a vast majority relatively quickly, others would be left forever scarred by pain, suffering and misery. Just as with any masscre or distaster the toll of the event is long-lasting and life-changing.

Political inaction which left those living, or rather dying, with AIDS was tantamount to  goverment-sanctioned death for patients during the plague years. Cox, a genius and pioneer was sentenced to death long ago by such politicians who turned a blind eye to an entire community that was being ravished by AIDS. Although today the political climate has, to a great deal, embraced HIV/AIDS, this certainly was not the reality of the plaque era. Cox and his fellow activists directly challenged not only the New York City Hall but also the White House and almost every major establishment in Washington, D.C. A politician's disinterest and lack of desire to become involved only further motivated activists such as Cox to blaze a trail into unknown territory. 

It was the introduction of the Denver Principes which boldly proclaimed that those infected were "AIDS patients" rather than "AIDS victims" and to this end Cox was no victim at least in the short-term. In the long-term Cox was merely the tip-of-the-iceberg regarding a marginalized and disenfranchised community who was viewed by politicians as "acceptable losses". 

There are followers and then there are leaders and those abilities are as much a gift as they are an art. Spencer Cox without doubt would forever changed the landscape of AIDS in the United States and Globally. His death however also serves as one last action. An action, like any successful action, brings to light an injustice and inequality through public awareness. An action also involves the potential for personal sacrifice through arrest, detention, or in this case... Death.

Much like the images we have seen of Tibetan Monks who set themselves on fire in one final act of protest, Cox so too has made a statement. A person who had been so instrumental is reforming how those living with HIV/AIDS received medications stopped taking his own. This was the equivalent of cutting an artery and allowing it slowly bleed out. The cestation of his medications meant one thing... death would finally come for this wounded warrior. For all of the things Cox stood for, such as empirical data, quantifiable-numbers and research, it was the latent-affects of living through the plague era which proved just as detrimental as the virus.

Our understanding of the psychological and emotional damage caused as a result of surviving the plague are not well understood. How many more Spencer Cox's are out there? How many more are survivors who through their own actions hasten death through self-destructive behaviors or attitudes? An addiction to crystal meth was merely the means by way Spencer self-medicated. The addiction was only a symptom of a greater problem that is not isolated to just Spencer. A greater problem that is running rampant throughout the gay community and within the AIDS community. I myself have battled with an addiction to Crystal meth as well as other self-destructive patterns of behavior. 

Why did he survive when so many others had died? The grief and grieving that seemingly over-shadowed being alive has been hidden away as a dark secret and is not spoken of near as often as it should be within our communities. What is focused on is improved drug therapies, longer life expectancies and "normal" lives however ignoring the catastrophic and debilitating emotional wreckage in plague-era patients is a travesty and it must be stopped.

Spencer Cox's death can be viewed as a murder which was sanctioned long ago but that only recently occurred or it can be viewed as the ultimate action and political statement to decry an injustice and inequality, only you can be the judge.