In the early 1980s, as a young gay man in San Francisco, Arturo C. Jackson III got what felt like a death sentence: an HIV-positive diagnosis. In the 1990s, he was an activist, fighting for better access to medications and better recognition of the illness. Today, at 55, Jackson is still fighting for dignity and a cure for those living with HIV/AIDS, but in a quieter way.
After 36 years as an AIDS survivor, the grandfather of two volunteers at the Sacramento LGBT Center, hosts a monthly potluck for AIDS/HIV survivors and helps the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento’s HIV/AIDS Ministry. This month, he was named one of the country’s top 100 longtime AIDS survivors by POZ, a magazine for the HIV/AIDS community. On Tuesday, he’ll be speaking at the annual Sacramento World AIDS Day, part of a global event remembering lives lost and working to bring more awareness.
Ahead of Tuesday’s talk, Jackson, who has a master’s degree in social work, spoke about living and working with HIV/AIDS. Here’s an excerpt:
Q: In the ’80s and ’90s, you were one of the AIDS militants, marching in San Francisco and the state Capitol, getting arrested at public events. How has the fight changed?
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A: Back then it was a death sentence. You were given two years or less to live. … It was a plague, and every single friend I had was going to die. We had no information. We felt the government had abandoned us. We were deemed diseased and undesirable. They did not recognize the public health crisis in time to save thousands of lives.
I stopped counting at 100 as friends died. I stopped going to funerals. … Today, everything has changed. It’s all changed. There are 32 effective medications, (developed) in the course of 30 years.
Q: Where do you see things now?
A: It’s a time of hope. For first time in 36 years, there’s been the most positive news coming out. There’s a concerted effort by professionals and health providers (who believe) we can see the end of AIDS. That it’s now within reach. There’s a lot of activity.
There was a recent study in San Francisco involving sexually active men using a new drug, PrEP, where they take one pill a day and after several years, there were zero new cases of HIV transmission. It was keeping the infection from spreading. … People like Cares in Sacramento are getting the word out to get as many people as possible tested. Getting tested is not such a stigma as it was 20 years ago. If you get on managed medical care and on HIV/AIDS medications, it’s virtually impossible you can infect someone.
Q: What did it mean getting named to the list of 100 longtime survivors?
A: It’s a wonderful honor. ... It’s really something to see that I’m not alone. I’m in a crowd of survivors. You’re seeing more people stepping forward, saying, “I’m 20 or 30 years positive.” There’s strength in that. … It’s time to hold the memories (of friends and colleagues who died of AIDS) and move to the present and stay healthy. I don’t want to stay in the past, which was horrific.
Q: What’s your message to the younger generation?
A: Help encourage each other to get tested and stay healthy. Let’s rid this world of AIDS and make it a thing of the past. Zero infections: I jump on that bandwagon so no other generation has to live through the horrors we did.
HIV/AIDS survivor events
Sacramento World AIDS Day: Candlelight vigil starts at 5:30 p.m. at Clunie Community Center, 601 Alhambra Blvd. in McKinley Park, followed at 6 p.m. by speakers, including West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye and longtime Sacramento AIDS activist Arturo C. Jackson III. More information at SacWorldAIDSDay.org.
Strength in Numbers: Monthly potluck dinner for HIV/AIDS survivors and family members, 6-9 p.m. first Saturday of the month at Sacramento LGBT Community Center, 1927 L St. Next gathering is Saturday. Bring a potluck dish to share. For more information, call 916-442-0185 or visit saccenter.org.