Nearly 550 people living with HIV and their allies visited the offices of more than 200 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday as part of the 25th anniversary gathering of AIDS Watch, the largest constituent-based annual HIV advocacy event in the nation.
Among those participating in the Capitol Hill visits were three grandchildren of actress Elizabeth Taylor on behalf of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which serves as the lead sponsor of AIDS Watch. Also participating in the event this year was celebrity fashion designer Zac Posen, who serves as an Ambassador of the Taylor Foundation.
"The overall objective of AIDS Watch each year is to bring HIV advocates from the grass roots directly to Congress to tell their story and to advocate for the appropriate policies we need to continue to change the trajectory of this disease in America," said Jesse Milan, president and CEO of AIDS United, the national advocacy group that serves as lead organizer of AIDS Watch.
Milan said AIDS United organizes the event in collaboration with The Treatment Access Expansion Project, which helps provide low-income people with HIV access to treatment and support services; and the U.S. People Living With AIDS Caucus.
He said the activists participating in the congressional visits and who attended a conference one day earlier on HIV issues held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel came from 36 states and the District of Columbia.
AIDS Watch participants gathered on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning for a rally before going to congressional offices to advocate for a wide range of AIDS-related issues.
According to Milan, among the issues the activists raised with the congressional offices they visited was the need for increased federal funding for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following by a decision by the Trump administration to cut the CDC's budget next year. The CDC plays a significant role in AIDS research and monitoring the course of the epidemic.
Other issues raised, Milan said, were the need for appropriate funding for the Ryan White AIDS program; support for a federal program in support of housing for low income people with HIV; and federal support for PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis medication that the U.S. FDA says has proven effective in preventing HIV-negative people from becoming infected.
He said activists participating in the congressional visits from southern states were expected to raise the issue of the need to stem the tide of the South continuing to be hit hardest with AIDS in the U.S. Despite the effectiveness of HIV medication in keeping most people with HIV healthy and disease free, many in the South do not know they are HIV positive until they become ill with a life-threatening infection that could have been prevented with early HIV treatment, experts have said.
Although Congress is in recess this week with most lawmakers away on visits to their home states, Milan said AIDS Watch arranged for participants to meet with high-level legislative aides to their respective senators and House members.
"We just completed one visit a few minutes ago with the office of a senator whose legislative aide told us he was thrilled that we were there because he has friends who have HIV," Milan told the Blade in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. It was the office of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
During Monday's AIDS Watch conference, Elizabeth Taylor grandchildren Quinn Tivey, and Laela and Naomi Wilding presented the fourth annual Elizabeth Taylor Legislative Leadership Awards to two current and one former state legislator.
The three are gay former New York State Sen. Thomas K. Duane, for his longstanding commitment to treatment and care of people living with HIV in New York; gay Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims for his efforts to end employment discrimination against the LGBT community and to advance marriage equality; and Florida State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith for his role in recent negotiations that led to the supermarket chain Publix to ensure its employee health plans cover PrEP.
AIDS Watch organizers presented that event's annual Positive Leadership Award for people who are HIV positive to three people they said showed exemplary leadership advancing support for diverse groups with HIV. The three are Cecilia Chung, Senior Director of Strategic Projects at the Transgender Law Center; Ronald Johnson, former Vice President for Policy & Advocacy at AIDS United; and Venita Ray, Public Policy Manager at Legacy Community Health.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.