AIDS Activist Michael Tikili: ‘I Saw My Reflection, I Saw the HIV Infection’

The HIV/AIDS activist discusses what black America should know about the ongoing effort to fight the epidemic. 

Michael Tikili is arrested in a New York City protest in 2011.
Michael Tikili is arrested in a New York City protest in 2011. COURTESY OF MICHAEL TIKILI

“I have immigrant parents. I’ve always seen the epidemic on the global scale,” explains Tikili, a New York native and first-generation African American. His mother is from Guyana, and his father is from Nigeria, so Tikili has never seen this world, nor this virus, at a “provincial level.”

Homophobia exists everywhere, but it is often practiced more blatantly and, at times, even legislated in African, Caribbean and Latin American countries. That, in turn, breeds a culture of fear where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are severely shunned, and therefore are less likely to access the health care they might need to diagnose or treat HIV infections. The connection between the LGBT community and HIV/AIDS began when the virus started to show up among gay men living in Southern California and New York City in the early 1980s. Public health scientists originally dubbed it GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. Tikili argues that U.S. global health funds should put pressure on foreign governments to curb their anti-LGBT norms and laws that ostracize those communities so that people feel comfortable coming forth to get the care they need.

It’s also important that U.S. policymakers continue to allocate funds toward global health initiatives like PEPFAR and the Global Fund so that countries in the Global South can apply for and receive money to combat the virus and help those living with HIV/AIDS.

Criminalizing HIV

“HIV is the only communicable disease that has legality linked to it,” Tikili explains. He’s talking about the issue of nondisclosure, and whether or not it’s fair to prosecute someone for not disclosing the fact that he or she has HIV to an intimate partner, even if the person with HIV hasn’t transmitted the virus to the partner.

“This is a public health issue, not a criminal one. People are being locked away for 30 years because someone said to the police, ‘This person didn’t disclose,’” Tikili said. He describes how criminalizing the virus began with a well-intentioned initiative on behalf of the federal government to incentivize states to create laws to curb the disease. Instead of ramping up their public health infrastructures, though, some states focused on criminality.

“People are behind bars because someone was angry with them.” And because blacks are being infected at higher rates, the criminality issue will affect blacks more than others.

Preventive HIV Treatments Can Work like Birth Control and the Morning-After Pill

A medication called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) exists that is analogous to the birth control pill. It allows people who think they may become exposed to HIV to take a daily pill to decrease their chances of becoming infected. It’s a particularly useful method for people living in areas where HIV rates and rates of sexual assault against women are high.

There’s also PEP (postexposure prophylaxis), anti-HIV drugs that are analogous to the morning-after pill. They reduce the chances of infection among people who have been exposed to the virus.