Panelists relate “Angels in America” to AIDS today

The stigma associating homosexuals with HIV has not completely faded, experts say.

By Jon Catlin

AIDS activists, medical professionals, and social workers reflected on the modern state of the HIV epidemic in the U.S. Monday at Court Theatre, in conjunction with its current production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

The panel explored the three decades since the epidemic was brought to public attention in the 1980s, a time period captured by Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play.

“The Court’s production of Angels gives viewers a magnificent glimpse into the horror of the epidemic back in the ’80s, but the U of C community also needs to hear about what’s happened in the course of 31 years, where we are now, and what the epidemic’s future looks like,” said moderator David Ernesto Munar, President and CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC). Munar was one of two panelists who are HIV–positive, a status that has empowered him to nearly 20 years of HIV prevention and activism.

Despite medical advances, social stigma against being HIV–positive is a persistent problem, according to panelist Keith Green, who works with AFC. “When there’s a stigma against gay people or people with HIV, at-risk people are less likely to acknowledge their infection, get tested, or seek treatment,” he said.

“It was first known as GRID—gay-related immune deficiency—a name that thankfully didn’t stick,” said panelist Doriane Miller, a professor and physician at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “Since then, the epidemic has expanded to affect all kinds of Americans but now disproportionally affects drug users, sex workers, and African Americans and Latinos regardless of sexual orientation.”

Green praised Obama’s comments last week accepting same-sex marriage.

“This is one step in alleviating the stigma associated with homosexuals and HIV, which is one of the last barriers to the end of this epidemic,” he said.

Even with the social stigma as a barrier, medical advances have still dramatically changed the epidemic’s course, according to Dr. John Schneider of the Medical Center.

“When I began work with AIDS patients in hospitals, life expectancy was a mere three weeks and long-term treatment didn’t exist. Now, HIV infection is a chronic health condition, similar to diabetes, that can usually be stabilized with one daily pill,” he said.

Though the number of new infections has plateaued in recent years, panelists were hopeful but hesitant to accept Hillary Clinton’s projection for an AIDS–free generation of Americans in the near future.

“In the words of Harper, a character from Angels in America, we’ve made ‘painful progress,’ but still have a long way to go,” Munar said.