South African-born attorney Robert Bank became chief operating officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis last October. He talked to the Resident about the group’s two-pronged mission to champion the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and stem the tide of infections.—Cotton Delo
What background did you bring to this position?
RB: Actually, I’ve been connected to GMHC for over 20 years. I grew up in the AIDS epidemic, so to speak. I am a gay man, and in the mid ‘80s I was very connected to the epidemic because many of my friends – and, actually, my partner passed away in the early ‘90s – were sick with AIDS. I came to GMHC really as a budding civil rights lawyer. I volunteered in the Legal Services department at the time to write wills for people who were dying. In 1995, a position opened in the legal department.
How have you wanted to expand on the group’s mission?
RB: In New York City, predominantly, the increase in numbers in the epidemic is in men who have sex with men of color, and women of color – predominantly African-American and Latina women. We need to stop the deaths, and we can stop the deaths, because we have access to the best medication in the world. The way we have to get the medication to the people who are still dying is, we have to talk about HIV/AIDS … As long as we’re still not open, people will do two things: they will not get tested, and they’ll come into care very late.
So, what work can you do as an organization to reduce the stigma?
RB: We do an enormous amount of public education. We do outreach, we do social marketing, we have a very sophisticated Web site, and we are out there. One of the things that our staff plans to do in an even more expanded way is to take GMHC out of the building. We have a staff that, now, spends most of their time not here at our location in Chelsea. We are all over the city. We have a mobile testing van that goes to all the hardest-hit parts of New York City.
What are those parts?
RB: The highest rate of HIV infection in New York City is in Chelsea. Then, the next highest rates are in central Brooklyn – Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Brownsville areas – and upper Manhattan, Harlem. Then parts of the Bronx and Queens. So we do know where the highest rates of infection are occurring, and they’re often occurring in areas where men who have sex with men congregate. Then we have areas that are steeped in poverty, where people have less access to health care. They’re dealing with so many structural drivers of the HIV/AIDS epidemic … I mean racism, poverty, gender inequality, homophobia, discrimination based on immigration status, substance abuse, homelessness. The vision for GMHC is to make a huge dent in those intractable social problems, and we do. Three years ago, we built a very strong workforce development program. We place people in jobs and we retain them in jobs … People with HIV/AIDS properly treated with medication and properly supported can learn healthy lives.
I heard it’s an issue that people have started to regard AIDS as a chronic condition instead of a deadly condition. Does that concern you?
RB: I think the issue with AIDS is very interesting; it’s such a young disease in some ways. About 15 years into the emergence of HIV/AIDS – about 1995, 1996 – there was a true medical breakthrough in which people living with HIV/AIDS, if treated, could live fairly healthy lives. Before we were only dealing with death. The truth of the matter, unfortunately, is that AIDS is a life-threatening illness with no cure. We’re now seeing some problems. For instance, people who have been taking HIV/AIDS medication for a long time – many of them are aging. There really hasn’t been much scientific or medical study of the interaction of these antiretroviral therapies with the types of drugs that seniors take. Number two is youth. How do you convince youth that they should not be infected with HIV, because they could live a fairly long life and take these antiretroviral therapies. Our job is to put HIV in people’s minds before it gets into their bodies.
How do you think it is to live with HIV/AIDS in New York in terms of medical care?
RB: I think it depends where you live and what access you have to health care. New York City is a very complicated city – it’s really a lot like that novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.” It’s probably a tale of 10 cities. Our role is to find the one-in-four persons – living in New York City, that must be about 40,000 – who have no idea they’re living with HIV, educate them about HIV, inform them that it’s not a death sentence.
Are there cases of workplace discrimination that the organization deals with?
RB: Absolutely. The Legal Services department receives about five cases a week of complaints of workplace discrimination, which is shocking in 2007. I think there could come a time when a person would feel as comfortable to tell their employer that “I’m a person living with HIV/AIDS” as they would to say, “I just went to the doctor and was just diagnosed with cancer.”