World AIDS Day is an important day at Mazzoni Center — not just because we go from neighborhood to neighborhood throughout Philadelphia to offer free HIV testing via our mobile testing unit. It is also a day on which we take time to reflect on the losses that HIV/AIDS dealt to the LGBTQ community and highlight the amazing work that we do to fight against the disease.
HIV/AIDS has touched every single person who has worked here, with the loss of someone they knew or who was close to them — from people who receive services at Mazzoni Center to advocates and activists in the community, and even family members and loved ones, all lost to this devastating disease. Today, we reflect on the past and the journey that we all have been on since the beginning.
AIDS began as a medical mystery and quickly morphed into a public-health crisis for the next three decades.
Mazzoni Center was one of the first HIV/AIDS service centers at the beginning of the crisis. Our agency was founded in 1979, a few short years before the HIV/AIDS crisis began in the 1980s. Since then, we have been at the center of this epidemic. The agency responded by incorporating HIV care and prevention services in 1981 and has remained at the forefront of designing and implementing programs and services to combat HIV/AIDS. From the establishment of the first HIV-testing site in Pennsylvania in 1985 and the first sponsored housing for individuals living with HIV in 1986, to opening the region’s first HIV-related food bank in 1989, Mazzoni Center has led the way in innovative and compassionate care and services for at-risk communities.
The urgency of dealing with the HIV/AIDS crisis, identifying needs and scrambling to provide adequate support shaped everything about our organization in those early years. It galvanized the LGBT community in unprecedented ways and brought to life many critically important organizations to provide support and assistance to people impacted by HIV/AIDS.
For more than 30 years, Mazzoni Center has had a unique perspective on HIV/AIDS, not simply as a medical condition, but as something that impacts social, emotional and economic well-being.
At first, HIV/AIDS was a crisis for the gay community, whose members lacked broad support or political power, were often closeted and/or disconnected from family and found themselves suddenly faced with the terror of seeing friends, partners and loved ones dying in the prime of their lives. This brought about groups like the AIDS Task Force and ACT UP to fight for the rights of those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
Today, racism, poverty, stigma, inadequate information and unequal access to care have meant that people of color, especially young MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender women, continue to be infected with HIV at disproportionate rates. The advances in care and prevention have not translated equally across our communities. This is why groups like the Black and Brown Workers Collective continue to fight against these wrongs in the institutions that offer these services and champion those in the communities that need this advocacy.
Mazzoni Center is not at a loss when it comes to all of this. The organization is proud of the work that we do every day, but we know that we have more work to do to address the issues of disparity and inequity that affect our communities and to build stronger relationships with people in the most impacted communities, in particular young MSM of color and trans women of color. We know that we have a long road ahead of us to repair relationships with those who come to us for support and healing, and those who work with us to support and heal the community.
After a very tumultuous year, this World AIDS Day reminds us at Mazzoni Center of all the work that we need to continue to do. Our focus is on our continuum of care and continuing to evolve to support injustices and inequities related to resources, including housing, mental health, case management and food security, along with quality medical care and HIV/STI testing services.
There is still hope that the work we do, despite the hardships and losses, will lead to an end goal — helping people overcome barriers to build a healthier, more informed and inclusive community and, ultimately, to realize a world without HIV/AIDS.
Thirty years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, hope is what got us through this then, and that same hope is what will carry us into a brighter future.
Sean Laughlin is the communications coordinator at Mazzoni Center. For more information about the organization, visit www.mazzonicenter.org.