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The Legacy of President Barack Obama: Celebrating a Commitment to an AIDS-Free Generation

Since the recent presidential election, I’ve been preparing for a reality that I don’t want to face. It is the reality that we are days away from the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump.

It is not a secret that I am a liberal Democrat, but this is not about party affiliation. There are numerous honorable and good people that I politically disagree with who would be qualified to serve our country as an elected official. However, our country didn’t elect any of them to be President. Instead, our country chose a racist, misogynist, xenophobic man with no previous political experience, to hold the highest office in the U.S. That gives me great pause and evokes great anxiety about the next four years. It has me concerned about international relations. How will other countries see us, and will it impact our national security? It has me concerned about racial minorities, religious minorities, the LGBT community, women and anyone else who is marginalized in our society. Many people who are a part of those groups are feeling a lot of uncertainty and fear about the next four years. It is also fair to say that the reality of a Trump presidency is providing a lot of uncertainty and fear in the HIV community. This is an uncertainty and fear that the community didn’t have under President Obama’s tenure.

As President Obama prepares to leave office, I believe it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the progress this administration allowed us to make, and the leadership President Obama showed in the fight against HIV/AIDS, both at home and abroad. From an international perspective, President Obama reauthorized the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This initiative started by President George W. Bush has provided billions of dollars in funding for access to HIV prevention and treatment services in foreign countries, primarily in Africa. Domestically, President Obama created the first ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) in 2010, and revised it in 2015. NHAS provided a comprehensive strategy to combat the HIV epidemic by combining scientific and social methods. It focused on HIV prevention, increasing access to treatment, and recognizing the role that social determinants of health and civil rights play within the epidemic. NHAS acknowledged the needs of the most vulnerable populations living with HIV, including homeless populations, LGBT populations and communities of color, and addressed the need to reduce stigma by repealing HIV criminalization laws and increasing education.

The Obama administration took another step towards reducing stigma in 2010 when the President lifted the travel ban that prevented non-U.S. citizens with HIV from entering the United States. As a result, the International AIDS Conference returned to America after a 20-year absence and was held in Washington, D.C. in 2012. The lifting of the ban helped to end government-legislated discrimination borne out of fear and ignorance. It also sent the message that HIV-positive people were not automatic public health threats and deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. The government’s enforcement of the travel ban caused more harm than good by forcing people to hide their status in order to enter the country, and potentially led to several unintended consequences such as many people not seeking testing and treatment, negative health outcomes for people and new infections.

President Obama’s efforts and signing into law of the Affordable Care Act also had an immense impact on those living with HIV/AIDS. The Affordable Care Act required insurance companies to provide coverage to persons with a pre-existing condition such as HIV. The Affordable Care Act also increased access to comprehensive sexual health and preventative services. At the present time, more Americans are insured than ever before. The Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but it has saved a lot of lives and prevented discrimination for many people who otherwise would be denied coverage.

Overall, President Obama’s policies will have a direct and indirect impact on furthering progress toward ending the HIV epidemic in the future. During his term, the Justice Department stopped defending lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. This action opened the door for the landmark Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, making same-sex marriage legal in America.

The laws prohibiting same-sex marriage left many LGBT people feeling isolated, marginalized and like they were not worthy of the same freedoms afforded other citizens. These laws contributed to increased rates of depression, substance use, alcohol use and risky sexual behavior; all of which are related to HIV transmission. A study completed by Emory University in 2009 found that bans on same-sex marriage could be linked to increased HIV transmissions. The overturning of laws prohibiting same-sex marriage provided hope and affirmation. The Court’s action made LGBT people feel accepted and supported. This now will lead to increased feelings of self-worth and may reduce risky behaviors, which may lead to decreased HIV transmission and more people engaging in self-care.

Barack Obama was the leader of the Free World for eight years. His unwavering commitment to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic on foreign and domestic soil will undoubtedly have an impact on the future. President Obama understood the importance of taking an active role, and utilizing a multilayered approach to reaching an AIDS-free generation. There are multiple factors driving this epidemic, and it will take multiple factors to end it. While I didn’t agree with every decision he made as President, I believe he led this country with class, grace and dignity, despite all the road blocks and unfair attacks brought against him and his family. I am forever grateful for his compassion, intelligence and leadership. President Barack Obama - thank you and Gold Bless you.