Gregg Gonsalves ’11, an Eli Whitney student, has been an HIV/AIDS activist and advocate since the early 1990s, when he first became involved in the movement. Since then, he has worked to restructure domestic and international AIDS research policy and in 2008 was awarded the John M. Lloyd Foundation’s inaugural AIDS Leadership Award, a prize of $100,000. Gonsalves spoke with the News Tuesday about his experiences with the disease.
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Q What initially got you so interested in the HIV/AIDS fight?
A In the ’80s, people were dying like flies. I met my first HIV-positive person and we started dating. Around the same time, I found out that my cousin was HIV-positive too, and I had an interest in keeping these people alive. If we were going to make this go faster, it wasn’t about waiting for the government to move, it was about pushing them to do the right thing.
Q Tell us a little about your advocacy experiences.
A I’ve been involved in advocacy since the 1990s, so about 20 years now. I wrote a report on the National Institutes of Health’s AIDS research in 1992, where we discovered it was both uncoordinated and inefficient, and we managed to convince the late Senator Kennedy, President Clinton and other members of Congress to reorganize domestic AIDS research. In 1996 a new AIDS medicine came, and everything changed. Instead of going to a lot of funerals — my cousin died around that time — you had people rising from their deathbeds. I found out I was HIV-positive then, just as the drugs were made. I was lucky.
[The drugs] worked, but if you couldn’t afford them then you were out of luck. There are millions of people globally who couldn’t afford the drugs, so activists focused their efforts then on low drug prices and universal access.
By 2000, a new movement had come that was about extending the medicine to people around the world who needed it — this is what I’ve been doing. I spent the two years before I came to Yale in South Africa trying to educate people about the disease and its treatment and trying to organize people to speak up for their rights.
Q How have you been involved in AIDS activism at Yale?
AI taught a module at the public health school on global health advocacy last year, and I’ve done a lot of speaking. The real action, though, started a little while ago — a bunch of us went to Bridgeport to disrupt an Obama rally a month ago. The Obama administration has made a lot of bad decisions in this regard, and has basically flatlined AIDS funding.
Q What are some of your biggest hopes for the future?
A I hope President Obama has a change of heart. We were thinking we could use AIDS as an engine to have the rest of global health forward, but now we’re back playing defense saying “Please don’t cut AIDS!” It’s not just about AIDS, it’s also about a whole bunch of other health issues.
Q What is your biggest fear?
A That the Republicans and Democrats will slash federal spending overall in a way that hurts poor people most of all. If we go that direction, it’ll be a bloodbath.
Q Is there anything else you’d like us to keep in mind?
A David Carel ’13 and I are putting together a group of students Monday to see how to continue this fight. Our goal by the end of the year is to outdo Harvard — they might beat us at football, but we want to beat them at mobilizing people to fight HIV/AIDS. We have a proud history of AIDS activism at Yale. Now it’s time to revive that, when it’s needed now more than ever.