In the late 1990s, an acquaintance I met at my acupuncturist’s office – Evan Ruderman, the formidable AIDS and women’s rights activist – kept inviting me to get involved with a group that “got together by phone to talk about global AIDS issues.” I declined a number of times.
Honestly, despite being HIV positive myself, I was more embarrassed than anything that I didn’t even know there was a global AIDS pandemic.
Then in January 2000, I read an article in the New York Times about then-Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Security Council framing the HIV pandemic as a security threat but that lifesaving treatment just “wasn’t feasible” due to the high costs. I got really angry. Little did I know then, Al Gore had made global AIDS a focus of the Security Council’s agenda in response to incredibly effective pressure brought by AIDS activists, including Health GAP members – but that is a story for another time.
Here I was HIV positive for 11 years, having almost died five years previously. I was yanked away from death’s door because of newly released ARV (anti-retroviral) “cocktail” drug combination—with a full-on “Lazarus effect.” But people in sub-Saharan African countries and throughout the developing world just couldn’t have access to the same life-saving drugs that I had because they were too expensive? I couldn’t believe it.
A few days later, I walked into my acupuncturist’s office and overheard Evan telling someone she was going to the International AIDS Conference (IAC) in South Africa that summer and, without missing a beat, I called across the office to her and said, “I’ll be there!” I didn’t even know what it was, but I knew I had to go.
Not long after that, a friend who knew my plan to go called me and said there was a guy from South Africa on the radio talking about AIDS. I quickly tuned in. The guy—Zackie Achmat, a founder of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign—gave out his email address on air so I wrote him, told him I was going to the IAC and asked him what I should do there. He gave me an address and told me to go there when I arrived.
So I did.
I walked in and started asking for Zackie Achmat and everyone was like, “Who are you?” But there was a press conference about to start and they somehow thought I must be press so they gave me a press kit and showed me to a seat.
After the press conference I explained how I got there and asked how I could help. Some crazy-haired white guy – who I came to know was Paul Davis, an original member of the Health GAP staff – gave me a bunch of fliers about an upcoming march and tape and told me to stick them up all over the neighborhood. That was my introduction to activism.
Over the course of the next week or so in Durban, I spent much of each day at that space making posters and banners and props and sitting in on planning meetings with activists from France (ACT UP Paris), South Africa (TAC) and the U.S. (Health GAP, ACT UP Philadelphia, and ACT UP New York). I helped with and participated in the big march on the opening day of the IAC and other things I now can’t remember. But I met an incredible group of people really making things happen there.
After I got home, the next time I saw Evan I told her I thought I was ready to get on those phone calls she kept inviting me to. On my first call, the six or eight people on the phone were people from Health GAP I had met in South Africa! I thought to myself, “Could the movement really be this small? If so, maybe even I could make a difference.”
I’ve been volunteering with Health GAP ever since.
Today, I’m still with Health GAP’s feisty band of tough, smart people that really make change happen. I try to be helpful however I can, including recently accepting the opportunity – and challenge – of serving as Chair of the Board of Directors.
As the newly minted Board Chair, I’d encourage you to get involved, if you haven’t already. If you have money to donate, Health GAP is a great place to invest it. There’s nothing wasteful about the organization. It has very low overhead and money is smartly spent, always with a sharp focus on doing the right thing and effecting the most change. If you have big money to donate, talk to me about a possible seat on the board or about a plan to put your money to excellent use. If you’re a student or young activist, definitely get involved with the Student Global AIDS Campaign – it’s likely to change your life. I’ve seen it happen so many times, and the AIDS movement still needs new leaders because the fight is, sadly, far from over.
I’m so grateful to be alive. It’s difficult to be living with HIV – and having been at death’s door – and knowing that there are still millions of people without access to the affordable HIV medicines they need. You’ve got to do something. That’s what Health GAP is all about: building a movement and fighting for universal access to affordable, life-saving medicines for every person living with HIV. I hope you’ll join us in action.
T. Richard Corcoran is the President of Alouette Inc., a marketing engineering company based in Brooklyn, New York. He previously represented Health GAP on the Programme Coordinating Board of UNAIDS and has volunteered with Health GAP for over 17 years. He is living with HIV and eternally grateful for the activists who came before him and saved his life.