By all rights, he should be dead today. He was a self-destructive, angry young man who got mixed up in drugs and alcohol and took a lot of sexual risks in the free-wheeling, AIDS-ridden 1980s.
"I should have died of AIDS… I shouldn’t be here today," British singer Sir Elton John told some 5,000 people at the International AIDS Conference today.
But he was saved by the love and compassion of complete strangers, who cared for him during his dark days of drug rehabilitation. And that's the message he’s preaching today – that with all the best science in the world, people won’t be saved from HIV/AIDS as long as there is hatred, discrimination, stigma and lack of compassion for marginalized groups affected by the epidemic.
We need to put our arms around people who are HIV-positive and celebrate those who go to be tested.
John founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 after he came to know Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. After White’s death in 1990, he began to take stock of his own life. He writes about his experiences in his new book, "Love is the Cure."
In his talk at the conference, where he appeared in an uncharacteristically conservative black suit and blue shirt, he said he experienced the shame of a drug addict, and it’s the same shame that keeps many at-risk people from emerging into the mainstream to seek HIV testing and care today.
"They feel subhuman, worthless, like they don’t matter at all," he said. "It prevents them from getting treatment."
The AIDS epidemic has led people to be ostracized by families, for African men to be subject to stoning, for orphaned children to be abandoned in the streets, and for injection drug users to be considered lawless citizens in some parts of the world. But all this does is push people further into the shadows, causing needless suffering and further contributing to the spread of AIDS.
"We need to put our arms around people who are HIV-positive and celebrate those who go to be tested," John said.
Compassion, he said, "doesn’t cost anything, but it’s the most precious thing in the world… When we find it, I promise you we will wake up from this 30-year nightmare into a brand new day."
Ruthann Richter is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school’s communication office. She is attending the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. and is posting periodic updates on the happenings there. You can see all of her updates in our HIV/AIDS category.