To mark World AIDS Day – the day on which the world pauses to remember the millions of men and women who have lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses – best-selling artist Sir Elton John spoke exclusively with MSNBC about his work as an activist, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and the role every person can play in ending the most devastating public health pandemic in history. And he reveals the one thing he knows for sure: It all comes down to compassion.
In 1992, John founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), which rose to be one of the largest funders of HIV/AIDS programs in the world. In the past 23 years, EJAF has raised more than $349 million – crucial funds that have helped people across the globe obtain access to healthcare and influence the policies that affect the everyday lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.
At the close of last year, there were 36.9 million people living with HIV, according to UNAIDS. There were 2 million people who were newly infected with HIV in 2014, and 1.2 million who died as a result of an AIDS-related illness. The world now has the science to achieve zero AIDS-related deaths, and organizations like John’s are leading the charge toward this ambitious global goal set by the United Nations.
While money helps wage the war, to quote from the title of his bestselling memoir, John recognizes that “love is the cure.” Stigma remains the No. 1 driver of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic as it enters its 35th year.
John’s pioneering role as an HIV/AIDS activist is rooted in compassion, which he learned from his dear friend Ryan White, whose very public diagnosis with AIDS changed the face of HIV in America. White was a hemophiliac who was diagnosed with AIDS at just 13 years old in the 1980s. He had been given a blood transfusion that was infected with HIV, and the fears generated by the stigma surrounding his illness led to his dismissal from school. White and his mother courageously fought for his right to an education, and his all-too-short life as activist planted a seed in John, which he details below for MSNBC.
MSNBC: Sir Elton, I know you had a special relationship with Ryan White. Was he the source of your inspiration to become an AIDS activist?
John: Ryan White changed the world, and he certainly changed me. Getting to know and love Ryan and his wonderful mother Jeanne has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. I first learned about Ryan, and how he and his family were basically being hounded out of their community in Kokomo, Indiana, by reading about him in a magazine. I was enraged by the way this poor family was being treated by their own neighbors during what had to be one of the most difficult and painful periods of their lives and became determined to help the White family any way I could. We very quickly became friends, and I helped them move to a more accepting community in Cicero, IN. Then in April of 1990, I spent the last week of Ryan’s life with him in an Indianapolis hospital, and I joined Phil Donahue and Howie Long as pall bearers at his funeral.
At that time, my life was a complete mess. I was rich and famous, but I was also a self-obsessed drug addict. I looked at this extraordinary family, caught up in the terrible tragedy of losing this wonderful, courageous young man, and yet they were still able to forgive the hatred of others and focus their energies on trying to make things better for people living with HIV/AIDS. Then I looked at myself, and I knew something had to change. And it did. I got sober. And once I got sober, I knew I had to do something to honor my friend Ryan’s legacy and to give new purpose to my life. That something turned out to be the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
MSNBC: In May, you told Congress that stigma remains the biggest barrier to ending the AIDS epidemic. Thirty-five years after the outbreak, why is this still true?
John: HIV/AIDS remains highly stigmatized because it is sexually transmitted. Every society attaches its own particular taboos or exerts a tremendous amount of judgment surrounding sexual practices. There’s a prevailing attitude that a person who acquires a disease through sex “deserves their fate” or “was asking for it.” Some people also think it’s OK to discriminate against people who use drugs, people who engage in sex work, and LGBT people. Of course, such thinking is the height of hypocrisy, not to mention inhumane, but it makes it very easy to write off entire populations as being unworthy of our help and concern. As a result, HIV/AIDS remains a disease of the marginalized, the poor, and the dispossessed.
MSNBC: The use of drugs, especially injection drugs, fuels the epidemic. Why do you think there is so much hypocrisy and stigma related to drug use, and how can this be addressed to improve the HIV response?
John: As a society, we have attached a tremendous amount of stigma to drug use and addiction because it is regarded as a behavioral problem that only people who are weak and lack self-control engage in. Outside of the medical and drug rehabilitation communities, there is very little understanding among the general public about the biological realities of addiction, and little empathy for the people who struggle with it every day. But as I can very well attest from personal experience, addiction is something that can happen to anyone, and every single person living with chemical dependency deserves help, and to be treated with respect, kindness, compassion, and dignity.
At a governmental level, this means admitting that the “War on Drugs” has failed spectacularly, and that we have to stop warehousing drug addicts in prisons. It means fully funding drug rehabilitation programs so that every addict who makes the difficult and admirable decision to finally seek help can actually receive it. And it means fully funding needle exchange and syringe services programs, so that people who inject drugs can prevent injection-related HIV transmission and stay healthy until they are able to take that important step into rehabilitation.
Let me be perfectly blunt, and unapologetically so: If we demonstrated the same compassion for gay men, poor people, minorities, sex workers, prisoners, and yes, drug users, that we do for other, less marginalized people, there would be no more AIDS in America. So the solution to the twin problems of addiction and AIDS begins with the difficult task of educating people and changing hearts and minds. We must find a way to see the humanity in every person, to meet them and engage with them in the midst of their difficult circumstances, and help them find a path back to sobriety and health.
MSNBC: Among the groups most affected by HIV in America – gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men – the majority of new infections are occurring among the youngest age group – and they’re rising. What is your message to young LGBT people? Does self-esteem play a role in this?
John: My heart truly goes out to LGBTQ youth all around the world. Being a teenager is hard enough – adjusting to a growing and changing body, navigating new emotions and feelings, trying to figure out how you fit into the world and into society – it’s just an incredibly difficult rite of passage. LGBTQ youth have the added challenges of realizing that they are different from their peers, dealing with all of the negative messages from bigots and religious zealots, fearing the possibility of rejection by parents, family, friends, as well as the very real possibility that they may experience physical violence because of who they are and who they love. Is it any wonder that the HIV rates – not to mention the suicide rates – among LGBTQ teens are so much higher than their straight counterparts?
To all LGBTQ youth, let me just say that you are LOVED. I love every single one of you. You are VALUED. You have so much potential and so many gifts to offer the world. Please, PLEASE know that there are other people in the world who are just like you and who will love you just as you are. Seek out those people, make friends, become part of the greater LGBTQ community. And most importantly, find an LGBTQ health organization that can provide reputable information about your health and safer sex practices and connect you to the medical, mental health, and social services you need. You are all so special, and the world needs you to stay safe, stay healthy, and help contribute to a more just and peaceful future.
MSNBC: What role does compassion play in ending the AIDS epidemic?
John: Compassion is EVERYTHING! Money is absolutely necessary to ending AIDS, make no mistake! We do need funding to accomplish our ultimate goal. But as I’ve already said – we have the money and we have the means right now to end AIDS. What we lack is the compassion and human decency to do the right thing and make that money and those programs and those treatments available to every person around the world who needs it.
We need compassion, and we need greater understanding, more than anything else, to end this epidemic. HIV/AIDS is a disease that not only attacks the human immune system; it also attacks the human social system. It infects our civic institutions with fear, our communities with hate, our corporations with greed, our churches and synagogues and mosques with loathing. There is no medicine, no creation of science that will inoculate us from these social afflictions. And that is why the cure for AIDS is a matter of educating minds and changing hearts. It all comes down to compassion.
MSNBC: Do you believe you will see the end of AIDS or a cure within your lifetime? For the first time, thought leaders say we have the tools, but do we have the political will?
John: I do fervently believe that medical science will find a cure and that we will, at the very least, be well on our way to ending AIDS in my lifetime. Right now, even without finding a cure or a vaccine, we already have the tools and tactics that have been proven by research and science to halt the spread of the virus: condoms, health education, and needle exchange programs. Yet conservative religious and political leaders continue to stand in the way of fully implementing programs we know would save millions of lives. We already have advanced treatments that not only allow people with HIV to live long and healthy lives but also prevent the spread of the disease. Yet millions of people around the world don’t have access to these lifesaving medicines. The reality is that until we give everybody the same access to treatment and prevention, AIDS will never, ever go away. It’s that simple.
MSNBC: What would you encourage the average global citizen to do to help end the epidemic?
John: Governments and institutions aren’t nameless, faceless monoliths. They start with individuals, and they are guided by individuals. Whether they do good or ill is up to individual choice. And while the AIDS epidemic is bigger than any one of us, the cure requires something from each of us.
It requires us to talk with our partners, to get tested and practice safe sex, and we must encourage friends and loved ones to do the same. It requires us to stand up for people living with HIV/AIDS and people most at risk of becoming infected. It requires us to educate ourselves about what governments and religious organizations are doing – and NOT doing – in our names. It requires us to be as generous as we possibly can in supporting nonprofit organizations working so hard to end this disease. It requires us to get out and VOTE for politicians who will actually serve our needs and hold them to their campaign promises. It requires us to embrace all people who need and deserve our compassion.
In other words, ending AIDS requires love, and lots of it. And the best way to engender love is to foster dialogue. We can only love one another if we understand one another. When AIDS is an uncomfortable and untouchable subject, the disease spreads. But when we bring it to the fore, when we aren’t afraid to confront it, information spreads. Compassion spreads. The cure spreads.
MSNBC: What else is on your mind that you would like to draw attention to this World AIDS Day 2015?
John: This year, World AIDS Day – Dec. 1 – just so happens to coincide with Giving Tuesday, a global day in which charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give. So in the spirit of Giving Tuesday and World AIDS Day, I encourage everyone to support the Elton John AIDS Foundation by visiting EJAF.org/donate, and give as generously as you can.
Sir Elton John is founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. In 2015, the foundation is investing close to $8 million in organizations across the Americas and the Caribbean. Nearly one-third of these grants focus exclusively on the U.S. South, which has some of the highest rates of poverty and HIV incidence in the country.