Anne Aslett talks about the effects of HIV stigma, and the work the Elton John AIDS Foundation is doing to fight it

Leading up to the first virtual 29th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party with Neil Patrick Harris, Dua Lipa, Sir Elton John and David Furnish for the famed Oscar party, we asked EJAF CEO Anne Aslett about why this event and the work of the foundationto fight HIV stigma and discrimination is still relevant, all these years later.

How did the event come about?

The former Executive Director of Rock the Vote, Patrick Lippert, became ill with AIDS in 1993 and brought the idea to our Foundation to host an Oscar party at Beverly Hills’ Maple Drive restaurant. Since then, the event has continued to grow and we’re now preparing for our 29th annual Academy Awards Viewing Party. Since its inception, the funds raised at the Oscar party support the important, lifesaving work we do every day.  EJAF is now working across four continents and is committed to overcoming the stigma, discrimination and neglect that keeps us from ending this pandemic.

Elton John with husband David Furnish, photographed by Michael Kovac

As we mark 40 years since the first reported cases of AIDS, why do you think there is still so much stigma around HIV?

Stigma is born from fear, and lack of information. The heartbreaking thing is that people with HIV and AIDS are made to feel ashamed of their status and as a result, do not seek or are too afraid to access the necessary help and treatment. We can have all the effective testing, drug regimens and support services you could possibly want, but if people feel too scared to come and access these things, then we’re not going to make progress. So stigma really is the huge barrier that stops us from optimizing all of the scientific and medical advances we’ve made in treating this disease.

What are some of the effects of stigma that you’ve seen in your work and that of the Foundation?

One of the worst effects of stigma is the social isolation of people living with or at high risk of HIV, often by excluding whole groups like the LGBT community, blaming them for disease, and even criminalizing them. This has also happened during COVID. The reality is that people who are excluded, shamed or punished hide in the shadows—which is damaging for them and for society. The fear of what we don’t understand or can’t control also leads to dangerously wrong or simplistic stories about a disease: how it’s spread, who is responsible, how to stop it. This has also happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s harder to look beyond the myths or blaming tropes to work with those most at risk and find out why they are so vulnerable and how to address that. It’s only by looking deeper, by recognizing our common humanity, that we really solve these problems. That’s why it’s so critical for us to work with young people, to dispel incorrect scare stories like HIV is spread by kissing and to understand that discovering and owning your sexuality and sexual health can be scary and confusing. If as adults we can role model empathy, compassion and a real desire to understand and fight epidemics like HIV, if we can make sure that the information we share is true and helpful, we give them the right tools for what the future will bring.

Do you have a personal connection to the work that you’d care to share?

In the 1990s I knew many people, mostly gay men, who were living with HIV and were absolutely terrified. The ‘gay disease’ had no cure.  It was a death sentence and, in the eyes of many, a punishment for immorality. So, on top of living with a disease that they knew would likely kill them, at the most vulnerable time in their lives gay men faced judgment and ostracism. How did that solve anything? That’s why I wanted to do all I could to understand and to help.

The fear of what we don’t understand or can’t control also leads to dangerously wrong or simplistic stories about a disease: how it’s spread, who is responsible, how to stop it.

What is the Foundation doing to help battle HIV stigma?

Firstly, we want to keep as many people healthy and safe as possible, so we fund flexible and sensitive HIV testing and treatment programs all over the world, especially for those most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Their voices, their survival, is the engine that will make sure we address these challenges in ways that are most likely to succeed. As part of this work, we sensitize health workers, policymakers, community leaders and others who have the ability to change attitudes towards people living with HIV/AIDS. We advocate to change laws that judge or criminalize HIV, as is the case in some U.S. states, or groups at severe risk of the disease, like LGBT. Homosexuality is still a crime in 68 countries around the world. We develop programs with partners that allow people to receive confidential, accurate information and practical choices to protect themselves and those they love, like the online platforms we are developing for young people, with funding from our Academy Awards Viewing Party. Young people represent 25 percent of the world’s population but are disproportionately affected by HIV, making up 36 percent of new cases. That’s 1600 young people infected with HIV each day. This age group is smart and savvy and require health care services and support in different ways than adults do. The Foundation is working to ensure that services are accessible on the platforms that are best suited to young people. 

In the Southern U.S., where a gay African American man has a 60% lifetime chance of contracting HIV, we are bringing together non-profits with religious and cultural voices to change the conversation about homosexuality and HIV.  

What can others do to help fight stigma and raise awareness about HIV?

Education is key, yet an evolving challenge. We must continue educating the public to help disprove myths and decrease fear and stigma. And treat people living with HIV like anyone else—with kindness and love. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Although the fight is far from over, I feel optimistic. Even though there is a lot of hate and ugly in our world today, we truly believe that humans are enormously resilient, kind and compassionate. If we continue working together, and operating from a place of love in all we do, the impact will be so much greater.  

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