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What World AIDS Day means to me

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

What World AIDS Day means to me

John Farley, Recruitment and Community Relations Manager

I gravitated to the field of public health due to my dad passing away from AIDS in the early 1990’s – somewhere between 1991 and 1993. To this day, I do not know the exact day or date of his death. I remember my mother coming into my room. I was reading, and in a very straightforward manner, she told me that he had died of pneumonia. It was no secret that my father had struggled with substances for most of his life and was an active intravenous drug user, whose drug of choice was heroin. As suspected, he contracted the virus via needle sharing. This was a time when needle exchanges were uncommon, and life-saving treatments were not widely available. He died alone and without access to medication.

I came out as gay at fifteen— but even before then, I was aware that HIV/AIDS deeply impacted the community I would later identify as being a part of. With the knowledge of San Francisco being the epicenter of the pandemic, I knew I always wanted to live there and do HIV-related work. However, as someone who was born and raised in New England, the only exposure I had to the city by the bay was mainly the lens of pop culture through films and early reality television – think Full House, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Real World. Still, I knew I would somehow end up on the West Coast.

At the age of 22, fresh out of college, I finally arrived! I began my work with the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2004 as a Recruiter/Outreach Worker in Bridge HIV, previously the HIV Research Section. At the time, I recruited potential participants in the community for HIV Vaccine Trials and worked on the first PrEP studies, before Truvada was FDA-approved in 2012.

Now, after over 17 years of residing in San Francisco, and being with the Health Department in various roles that have focused on community engagement and research, I am proud to work alongside some of public health’s most well-known community workers and accomplished HIV and substance use researchers. I am grateful to have a position that involves deep community engagement serving marginalized populations through innovative data-driven interventions to reduce HIV infection, address health disparities such as overdose, and improve health outcomes, all while working to reduce the stigma of substance use.

When I reflect on the progress that the world has made since my father passed, I am most touched by the ability to access PrEP at low and often no cost, thanks to Gilead’s Reimbursement Program and Truvada now being available in generic form. The privilege to have access to life-saving medication that can prevent HIV transmission is something an entire generation never had and is now a tool future generations can use to remain HIV-negative. I am thankful antiretroviral treatment has given people who are HIV-positive the chance to live full and healthy lives. Campaigns such as “nondetectable = nontransmissible” educate and break stigma of what it means to be living with HIV. Living with HIV does not make someone dirty, nor does being HIV-negative make someone clean. There is no need to categorize people and create a deeper discriminatory divide. This is a devastating virus that has caused insurmountable loss.

It’s been over 30 years since my dad died from AIDS. He never had the opportunity to see his once little boy grow up. I once turned to my mother in my mid-20’s and asked “mom, what do you think my dad would think of the person I turned out to be?” she was quiet – I could tell she was thinking deeply. She finally responded “honestly, John? I think he would love you even more”.

On World AIDS Day 2021, I want to honor not only the memory of my dad and the millions of lives that we have lost to the disease, but to everyone who has lost somebody they love to HIV, to those that live with HIV, yet carry on without their social networks and live with survivor’s guilt. Through the continued work of researchers, activists, community partners, and others, I believe a future free from the virus is within our reach.

Below is my favorite and one of the only pictures that I have of the both of us. I love and miss you, dad. I hope I make you proud.

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