In the early 1980s, a mysterious disease was killing gay men in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Larry Kessler, a Boston social activist, knew it would soon be coming to Boston. Kessler founded what ultimately became AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts in 1983, shortly after the disease was first identified (Monday, June 6 marks the 25th anniversary of the detection of AIDS). He recently retired from his front-line role in the battle against AIDS, but will preside over the 21st annual AIDS Walk this Sunday. Kessler was his usual candid and knowledgeable self as he shared with the Phoenix his perspectives about this continuing national and global health threat.
KESSLER: with AIDS Action ad campaigns of the past.
Before AIDS even had a name, what were your thoughts on the disease?
It occurred to me that if the disease was a New York thing and a San Francisco thing and an LA thing, it would soon become a Boston thing. Initially, in the first three cities, it was predominantly gay. But not in Boston. The first five cases in Boston were gay, but the next ten cases were a mix. There were women, Haitian immigrants, and drug users. People kept putting the pieces together. Out of this came the first national conference of AIDS.
When you were younger, you thought at one point you might become a priest. What do you think of the role of the Catholic Church in relation to the AIDS epidemic?
There are two sides to that. One level, the Archdiocese of Boston was really crucial in setting up systems to house people with AIDS. Where the Church failed and continues to fail is on the prevention front. Here in America almost every diocese has an AIDS ministry and their focus is to help people die. Not prevention. They are limited in what they can talk about, so they mostly talk about abstinence. The word condom gets stuck in their throat.
Worldwide, I would say the Church is a major co-factor for 40 million infections. They have refused to give people in developing nations support and encouragement and advice on how to use condoms, because they are contraceptives.
When AIDS was first detected, were people aware of the disease on a global level?
No, because people are not aware of what is happening out of the United States. If it is not happening in America and it is not happening in Europe, it’s not happening. It took a while before people started thinking about the Southern hemisphere of the world. These countries were out of sight and out of mind, and as a result, the epidemic is still flourishing in these places. The world of AIDS is separate and unequal. There are several tiers and some places are still in 1981, some is in 1995, and some of it is where we are here today in 2006.
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