Exclusive: Channeling Elizabeth Taylor, celebrities ask why we haven't yet ended AIDS in America

Screengrab captured from a new PSA released Tuesday by GLAAD and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. (Courtesy of GLAAD)
Screengrab captured from a new PSA released Tuesday by GLAAD and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

As the U.S. closes in on its 35th year battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, one of the first organizations in the fight raises an important conversation that is largely absent from the cultural zeitgeist: Although we now have the tools to make HIV history, new infection rates in America remain largely unchanged.

A new PSA released Tuesday by GLAAD and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), and previewed exclusively by MSNBC, opens with an excerpt from Taylor’s historic speech at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. “Each day, around the world, 5,000 people are infected with HIV,” the Academy Award-winning actress said at the time.

Although more than two decades have passed, last year, an estimated 2 million people were newly infected with the virus worldwide, according to data from UN AIDS. “So why aren’t we talking about it?” actor Titus Burgess asks in the PSA, as he looks pointedly into the camera.

GLAAD was originally formed by a group of activists, Vito Russo among them, who rose up against homophobic and inaccurate portrayals of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that were being printed in the New York Post and other media outlets. This year, it’s put its red ribbon back on display for all to see. At the time of GLAAD's founding, conversation about the epidemic was widespread, yet understanding of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was low, recalls Joel Goldman, managing director of the ETAF.

“Today, it’s the opposite. Conversation about HIV and AIDS is barely discussed in individual circles and has comparatively fallen out of the news cycle,” he said on Tuesday. “This is despite the fact that the U.S. has not seen a decrease in new infection rates in nearly two decades.” 

Moreover, among the group 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. Current CDC data reveals that one in four new HIV infections occur among youth and young adults ages 13 to 24. Moreover, there was a 22% increase in new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men in this age group between 2008 and 2010. Almost half of all new infections among black gay and bisexual men were in this age group — a shockingly disproportionate impact rate. 

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"More than 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, yet they're nearly invisible in the media,” GLAAD CEO & President Sarah Kate Ellis told MSNBC exclusively. “We cannot allow HIV and AIDS to continually be left out of conversations if we hope to raise awareness and eradicate the disease once and for all." 

Stigma, which bars the open and honest conversations necessary to eradicate the disease, remains the greatest barrier in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, and GLAAD and ETAF hope their new PSA will provide the framework for a new generation of Americans to start a dialogue about the modern realities of the epidemic, and they can be the generation to overcome it. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first major movie stars – a real celebrity – to use her voice to draw the worlds' attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now current A-list talent like Whoopi Goldberg, BeBe Neuwirth, and Meredith Vieira are following in her lead.

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“It's exciting to see this new partnership  of two power houses in the HIV response committed to reinvigorating the public conversation about the HIV crisis at a time when we have the tools to actually end AIDS as an epidemic,” said Eric Sawyer, a co-founding member of ACT UP, the iconic AIDS protest group started by Larry Kramer. “Hopefully this new powerful collaboration will return public attention to the HIV epidemic and reinvigorate the public's commitment to using the current science and all its tools to mount the kind of campaign we need to end AIDS as an epidemic once and for all.”

Among these tools is a revolutionary new HIV prevention medication known as PrEP, a one-pill a day regiment that studies have shown to reduce HIV infections in men by up to 92%. PrEP was the subject of a storyline in the HBO series Looking starring Jonathan Groff, also among the talent recruited for Tuesday’s PSA. It was subsequently introduced on the broadcast series How to Get Away with Murder. The ongoing partnership between GLAAD and ETAF urges Hollywood to develop more characters and stories that reflect the nation’s HIV/AIDS population and assists journalists in their coverage of HIV/AIDS in this new age of prevention and treatment.

“Let’s finish what we started,” Neuwirth says, as the ad flashes back to a final, emotional word from Taylor, “because the world needs you to live.”