Metro Weekly

The Years Go By

When it comes to activism and passion about AIDS, be prepared to find them in unexpected places

Perhaps it’s just the advent of Pride, but I feel like I’m living in a season of anniversaries. It does seem that spring is the time that inspires the launch of new endeavors. For me, this is the season that launched my marriage — my husband Cavin and I just celebrated our fifth anniversary on May 5 — and my current career, as we just marked 17 years of Metro Weekly.

This past week I spent a day reminiscing about another anniversary that’s close to my heart, the 20th anniversary of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.

Okay, I do realize that for those outside of D.C.’s world of public health and state government associations, the idea of having such a long-named organization close to my heart may sound a little odd. Even when shortened to its more manageable acronym, NASTAD, it doesn’t sound especially warm and fuzzy.

That’s exactly what I thought in the early summer of 1995 when I first interviewed for a job there. I had spent the previous two years doing HIV-prevention work with Whitman-Walker Clinic’s Gay Men’s Outreach Program and was ready to move on. The NASTAD position was a new one, charged with promoting the use of social marketing by public and community health organizations to create effective HIV-prevention programs.

Honestly, I was nervous about taking the job. I’d spent my time doing street activism, and moving into a classic D.C.-based, nationally focused organization seemed to be the very type of sell-out I’d railed against in others. I’m sure that the executive director, Julie Scofield, had her own reservations about hiring a young activist type who moonlighted as a sex-humor columnist but, lucky for me, she took a chance.

Sixteen years later, I’m so glad she did. I learned an incredible amount about the American public health system, from Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control to state health agencies and local community-based organizations. More importantly, I learned that the passion to make a difference in the face of a terrible epidemic wasn’t limited to activists on the streets or volunteers in small clinics.

As part of NASTAD’s anniversary, I helped with an oral history project, interviewing founding, former and current AIDS directors about their memories of those early days of the epidemic and how things have changed in the present day — and how, in too many ways, some things haven’t. It reminded me that the five years I spent during NASTAD’s early years were some of the most challenging and rewarding that I’ve had as a gay man. I found mentors, inspiration and friendships. Every training session I conducted, every community group I met with, gave me the chance to bring about some small bit of change, and that’s an opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

One of the tensions of AIDS organizations is the hope that, sooner rather than later, they will no longer be needed. That makes the marking of a 20-year anniversary for NASTAD both sobering and celebratory, the same as it is for any of the national and local AIDS organizations and activist groups that have done so much for us over the past 30 years. But, with NASTAD still so close to my own heart after so many years, I’m glad to offer my own small congratulations.

Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.