Awards of Courage
Honoring with Pride 2000 Honoree
Anne-christine d’Adesky began covering HIV/AIDS for the New York Native in 1984 and quickly became a national leader in her field. Throughout the next decade, she worked steadfastly to call attention to the magnitude of the worldwide epidemic, with groundbreaking journalism appearing in The Advocate, The Nation, In These Times, and OUT Magazine. From 1992 to 1998, she was a senior editor for AIDS, health, and science issues at OUT; she founded HIV Plus magazine, where she served as Editor-in-Chief, in 1998. Ms. d’Adesky was also an early member of ACT UP and a co-founder of the activist organization The Lesbian Avengers. She is former Editor-in-Chief of the arts journal Fruit, and she is the author of a novel about Haiti, Under the Bone (1994). Ms. d’Adesky’s journalism has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including The Washington Post, The San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, and Ms. Her coverage of the 1989 presidential elections in Haiti and her exposés of military massacres of civilians was nominated by The San Francisco Examiner for the Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for best foreign reporting. She is now completing her second novel and helping to organize a satellite conference on women and HIV at the XIII International World AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.
I’ve been working as a journalist since about 1980, when I was primarily a foreign correspondent, and I was doing a lot of human rights reporting centered on Haiti. In the early ’80s, we were beginning to see the effects of HIV in Haiti, which had one of the earliest large-scale epidemics — though it was not immediately apparent, because there is so much other epidemic disease there. I did some reporting about it for the New York Native at the time when this publication was expanding its coverage of AIDS, and when it was one of the only places covering the disease. It was an exciting and disturbing time, because we knew so little about what was going on, and we had a totally new kind of infection on our hands. Ever since, I’ve always tended to look at AIDS through the lense of Haiti, a place where there were so few resources and where the health infrastructure was so inadequate — and then AIDS came along and made the situation far worse.
The disease was so very stigmatized. Very early on, it was considered a problem only for the "four h’s": Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals. And it was very clear to me, when I saw reasonable demands being ignored, that AIDS was a human rights issue, an issue of justice, and that it needed to be addressed on a political level. A whole community of people with similar views was pulling together in New York, and I got involved in ACT UP very early, attending the first protest, down on Wall Street. For a couple of years, I spent a lot of time getting arrested. It felt like massive civil disobedience was the only tactic that could get the attention of the Reagan and Bush administrations and of the larger drug manufacturers. Our actions were also an effective way of saying emphatically that the status quo was unacceptable. With so many people terrified and dying, activism became an incredible channel for people’s emotions and also a way to develop their skills — it gave you a chance to be useful, to serve your community. In my own case, I felt like there was a real need to document the movement, so I often wore my journalistic hat together with my activist hat — I think I always have.
The difficulty was that the media weren’t treating AIDS as a serious health crisis. But at the time, it made some sense that the major media were failing to respond, because they were getting the message from political leaders that this was something that only concerned disenfranchised communities. On top of this, there was a taboo about covering any gay issues at all. And you still don’t see people writing in any kind of depth about poverty, heroin addiction, or for that matter, the devastating scope of the HIV epidemic in Haiti, which is the worst in the Western hemisphere. Why not? The fact is that individuals in the media carry generally shared biases and assumptions. I think this is one of the reasons why the gay and lesbian community has produced so much good AIDS journalism — people are very engaged but also less afraid to examine sacred cows, even within the community.
I was the AIDS and Health Editor at OUT Magazine for a couple of years, and I found that the scientific information I needed to report was getting increasingly complex. While there was a small group of long-time activists who had amassed a lot of technical expertise, the vast majority of my readers didn’t have this background, and many of them needed to be making treatment decisions for themselves. So I started HIV Plus in 1998, to address this gap. During my tenure as editor, I tried to provide state-of-the-art science reporting that was accessible at different levels, so that anyone who cared could become engaged, and have some say in the ongoing dialogue.
Of course, women and men in Africa have been dealing with an epidemic that is beyond what we can imagine. It’s far beyond what we experienced here in the worst days of AIDS. Now the epidemic is moving into Asia, India, and Eastern Europe. It has already reached a human scale so great that we must overcome our fatigue and our fear of its monstrous scope and refocus urgent attention on how we empower communities to fight it. This is critical not only for South Africa, Uganda, Thailand, or Haiti, where resources are so negligible, but for the overlapping communities here in the U.S. that are being disproportionately targeted by HIV: men and women of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, including gay and bisexual teenagers who remain at the highest risk for getting infected. It also extends to those who live south of our border and have little or no access to life-saving HIV medicines. This disease rides on the coattails of economic reality: poverty, lack of access to medicine.
While I do feel very encouraged by where we are in terms of scientific research, I feel there is a lot we could do very quickly if we — the AIDS community, the journalistic community — were to apply ourselves more. There are also clear gaps we can quickly close. For instance, in the activist community, very few people are conversant with the issues involved in vaccine development — people aren’t clambering to be on the community advisory boards of vaccine trials. I think that’s very much what is needed. Involving people is going to make the science better. And most scientists welcome a challenge, even if that means hearing, "Look, the science that you’re doing is not relevant, it can’t be translated into anything anyone can use." This helps everyone.
Personally, I feel that my access to information is a privilege, and it brings with it a great sense of responsibility. Especially because one of the things I learned from ACT UP is that there is a tremendous amount that you, as an individual, can do — and what’s truly scary is that you can do so little and it can go so far. In other social movements, people may have good ideas, but they don’t necessarily have that much impact. What is so unusual and in fact extraordinary about AIDS is that there’s so much need on so many levels that, if you apply yourself, then you can begin to see results very quickly. And the satisfaction of seeing these results serves to carry us through the difficulty, the sadness, and the grief. It is difficult to spend 15 years of your life dealing with a killer, being intimately involved with so many people who have died or are living with HIV, including close friends and family. It affects you as an individual. It changes you. But I have had the personal reward of feeling that I’ve been useful. I’ve given people tools they can use to empower themselves. And that’s ultimately what journalism is about — it’s about creating links and sharing resources, so that people have the knowledge they need to act.