By Barrett White
One was an HIV activist at the height of the crisis. One continues the fight today, for a new generation. We sat down with both of them to discuss the role of the activist – then and now – and where the fight to end HIV is heading.
In the late 1970s through the 1990s, activism in the HIV/AIDS community was rag-tag, ad hoc, and loud. It had to be – people were dying in droves and the government was slow to act. Operations like Act Up, the AIDS Trouble Fund, AIDS United, and Gay Urban Truth Squad (GUTS) popped up, locally and nationwide. Houston was one of the metros on the front lines of HIV activism, and among the poster boys of the local movement was Brian Keever, who today works for development at Legacy Community Health.
Mike Webb, President of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, is of the Millennial activist generation and was born during the time Keever was taking to the streets. In today’s modern activism, the focus and purpose of the activist has evolved. No longer are the days when AIDS medications were gathered from the bedrooms of the dead and returned to clinics – which were run by volunteers – to be redistributed to other patients in hopes to extend their own lives.
“I was diagnosed in 1986. They told me, ‘Maybe, ’88… ’90 at the latest,’” Keever said of his HIV diagnosis. “I drained my savings and social security because we were all supposed to die, and I lived off of it. It got to the point when you’d pick up the TWT [This Week in Texas] and see who died that week. I easily lost half a black book of friends.”
At the height of his work, Keever was an active member of the local chapters of Act Up, Queer Nation, GUTS, and The AIDS Trouble Fund, and worked on the March on Washington in 1979, 1986, and 1993. “I used to be a professional homosexual,” Keever quipped about his nonstop involvement. “We were very active here in Houston back then.”
Webb, who was diagnosed in 2010, says that the focus in today’s activism is largely to illustrate to the community that the fight is still ongoing.
“People like to believe that the HIV fight is a fight of the past. We hear often times that we’re not at the rate where we’re going to funerals every weekend. And that’s accurate, but we are going to funerals every month, depending on which subpopulations we’re a part of,” Webb said. “If you’re a gay black man, you probably know one person a month who’s passed away from HIV-related complications.”
Education is key: Webb’s advocacy began at Legacy, where they worked to build programs like MSociety to educate and empower communities of color.
“A lot of folks aren’t comfortable protesting in the streets,” Webb continued. “I’m more than happy to protest, but I also respect my community members who want to be a member of a support group, empowering each other. My advocacy is focused around creating systematic changes.”
To the younger generation, Keever says, “Please don’t pretend that it doesn’t exist anymore. Please don’t pretend that you don’t have to talk about it. There’s an attitude that ‘it’s not that bad,’ and that bothers me. It worries me.”
Webb assured that the risk of HIV activism slipping into memory is unfounded.
“There has to be a connection between generations in order for us to continue fighting HIV,” Webb continued. “I’ve always encouraged a mentorship dynamic between the generations – not just the older mentoring the younger, but the younger showing the older what they can bring to the fight.”
In the fight to end HIV, education and prevention is key. Do your part and get tested with Legacy today. Testing may be free if you believe that you were recently exposed to HIV.
Pictured above: Brian Keever, left, at Houston Pride in 1988. At right, Mike Webb speaks at Houston City Hall following the passing of activist Ray Hill.