Turning Back the Clock on AIDS Awareness

A generation after HIV changed a nation, rates are up again among young gay men. Las Vegas’ Gay and Lesbian Center is fighting back with old-school prevention.

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

Illustration by Christopher A. Jones

In the 1980s, the LGBTQ community coalesced around the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic. If ever you’ve wondered how that all worked out, you’ll get no more fascinating an answer than the community’s recent about-face in its approach to the disease that brought it together in the first place—an approach that Las Vegas’ Gay and Lesbian Community Center is among the first to embrace, through a new initiative called LGBTQ+.

First, a bit of background: Since the initial cases of AIDS were reported in 1981, many billions of public and private dollars have gone toward understanding and stopping the disease. The U.S. government alone has $23 billion currently budgeted toward preventing and understanding HIV and AIDS. Much of this money has been spent on prevention. People in their 40s and older will recall the ’80s and ’90s public awareness campaigns about safe sex—as well as the spate of hateful jokes and discrimination cases to which the epidemic’s initial spread in the gay community gave rise.

The LGBTQ community rallied to spread a more nuanced message: This is not just a gay disease. Straight celebrities such as Magic Johnson became spokespeople for the cause, encouraging Americans to see HIV/AIDS as a problem for society at large. And it worked. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, the spread of HIV has stabilized.

“You can live with HIV/AIDS now,” says Tom Kovach, who acted as interim executive director of the Downtown-based Las Vegas center until Bob Elkins was hired as CEO on September 16. The national movement didn’t just spur medical progress; it also turned a fragmented, voiceless LGBTQ community into a formidable, well-organized political machine. Advances in employment, marriage and military-service equality, for example, can be attributed in part to the solidarity that arose in the HIV/AIDS fight, Kovach says.

But while HIV/AIDS may not be a gay disease, it persists as a gay issue—and the LGBTQ community, while concentrating its efforts on other battles, has lost some of its laser focus on preventing the disease. Because of the physiological nature of transmission, men who have sex with other men are still the population most severely affected. Add to that a generational problem: People now in their 20s are too young to have benefited from the early public awareness programs that older people take for granted. From 2008 to 2010, HIV prevalence increased by 22 percent in gay men 13-24 years old, according to the CDC.

“Thirty years later, we’re finding ourselves in the position of reminding the public who is at risk,” Kovach says.

Enter LGBTQ+ (pronounced “LGBTQ poz,” as in “positive”). Inspired by a national challenge to recommit to the fight against HIV/AIDS, the Las Vegas center developed a program that allows young gay men to get tested for free at its health and wellness clinic. Those who test positive are then connected to counseling and medical care.

The center is advertising the program in a variety of ways, from social media to community events (keep your eyes peeled for a free screening of the Oscar-winning 1993 film Philadelphia), and offering incentives for getting tested, such as two free movie tickets. At press time, the center says, 150 people have come in for testing as a result of the campaign.

“Now that we’ve achieved equality, we’re turning back the clock,” Kovach says. “We’re among the first LGBTQ community centers to take such a step, and we’re hoping this program will serve as a model for others around the country.”

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