Terrence Chappell serves as editor-at-large for ChicagoPride.com where he writes Chappell Confidential, a social and nightlife column. He grew up and still resides in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood and remains active in the LGBT community. Chappell founded Professional Young Gays (P.Y.G.), a social and business networking initiative designed to connect young, business-minded gay men and women.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic is not over. Regardless of the glamorous print campaigns with the attractive models, the recent medical advancements, and the fact that people are living longer with the virus – the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a reality that affects millions of people a year. For instance according to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States more than 1 million people were estimated to be living with an HIV infection in 2006. Furthermore, nearly 7,500 new cases of HIV infections are reported worldwide each day and in the United States alone and someone is infected with HIV every nine and a half minutes according to the Center for Disease Control.
For David Ernesto Munar, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's newly appointed CEO/President, HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention is certainly not over and in some ways just the beginning. Munar has dedicated his life to the fight against HIV/AIDS. For Munar, his efforts and initiatives are more than a cause, more than his career, and even more than a mission; it's a part of his life. Munar was diagnosed HIV – positive in 1994.
Surprised, confused, and scared – Munar navigated his way through his emotions, his health, and his feelings of helplessness and further into the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, a leading organization for the fight against HIV/AIDS. Munar's story is about his navigation as a gay man, as an HIV –positive gay man, and as the AIDS Foundation of Chicago's newly minted CEO and President.
TC: (Terrence Chappell) How did you become involved with The AIDS Foundation of Chicago?
DM: (David Ernesto Munar) I went to Northwestern in Evanston and was deeply involved in the gay and lesbian alliance on campus, which was great and I really enjoyed doing that work – advocacy work. After I graduated, I did a lot of social justice work with immigration in Rogers Park. A friend of mine told me about an entry level position here [AIDS Foundation of Chicago] and I was hired in August of 1991, and I've been here ever since. It's been fantastic. I love this organization. I have a huge passion for it.
TC: You started working for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago in the early 90s, a time when HIV/AIDS funding was heavily cut or even not budgeted for in some instances. How was it working in such a climate?
DM: My whole career with HIV work has been marked by inadequate funding levels. So, we always operate from a deficit in terms of resources. The 90s were a period of growth. It was a lot of growth but we were building a foundation from nothing. The AIDS Foundation of Chicago was founded as a traditional coalition. When I started, there was about 12 organizations doing work related to anything about AIDS and now there are about 150 with adequate programs that are dedicated to HIV work. We saw a lot of cuts and maybe some increase in funding, but never enough increase that could match the epidemic.
TC: What sort of allies does the AIDS Foundation of Chicago have?
DM: We were very fortunate to have an array of allies. The Catholic Charities for example. The ACLU has been a strong supporter for a long time. We have a lot of support from Lambda Legal. The AIDS Legal Council of Chicago has assisted the foundation as well. A part of our work is finding and nurturing those kind of partnerships and relationships because on organization can't do it alone.
TC: You are HIV – positive. How does that influence your work with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago?
DM: I was diagnosed in 1994, so it's been about seventeen years of living with HIV. Being positive and being open about my status absolutely shapes the way I think about this work. I've been a student of the AIDS advocacy work for twenty years, but I also relate to this cause on a personal level. Unless there are more developments in science, unless there is more access to health insurance, unless there is more progress on the cause, I and others are directly affected. HIV shapes my entire world view. It's certainly more than a job – for better or worse, it's a calling.
TC: Can you take us back to 1994 when you were diagnosed HIV –positive?
DM: In 1994 there were still no effective treatments. There were some experimental treatments at the time. Almost all of our [AIDS Foundation of Chicago] was orientated around helping people die and to die with dignity. I was absolutely petrified. I was 24-years-old. I was paralyzed. It took me a long time to accept my diagnosis and be able to talk about it. I was working at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago but it was still a very emotional and lonely process – no matter where you are. Working at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago afforded me a lot of information, which was a blessing and a curse. Initially, it was a tremendous shock and in those days even more so because it was a death sentence.
TC: How did you come to be open about your status?
DM: It's a process, and it happens slowly. It was a decade before I really told anyone. I was in my cocoon and was just not dealing with the emotional aspects of being HIV –positive. It was like coming out of the closet all over again. I was afraid of what people would think about me. I also internalized a lot of negative aspects of living with HIV myself, so I had to come to terms with what this means for me.
TC: What advice would you give people who are afraid and/or hesitate to be open about their positive status?
DM: I would say that's normal. There are certainly a lot of legitimate reasons why people prefer not to disclose their status – they should be as there are a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding in the world. There are some people who don't' need to know the intimate details about your health or your life. Even in 2011, we see very egregious examples of status based discrimination in the employment and housing markets. I do think it's important for individuals to find pockets of support, which may mean different things to different people. It might mean disclosing to a great friend, to a family member, or going to a support group. It's very helpful to find human support. However, it's also important to know that some discloses are important and necessary. You should be very specific as to disclose to any sexual partners. It's also the ethical thing to do. It's a constant process of figuring out if this is a safe space to disclose, just like coming out.
TC: What do you hope to accomplish as the new CEO and President of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago?
DM: This year we will be doing a lot of strategic planning for the organization that will cover 2012 through 2014. Keeping services and meeting the need to prevention and care services from now until 2014 is a huge priority. Since our job is to end AIDS, I'm very concerned that everything we do is based on the epidemiology and responding to the needs of communities who are most impacted by HIV. One group that I think we need to do more for is gay and bisexual men of color. We need to figure out ways to do more and how to have a greater impact in terms of care and state funding.
TC: What can people do to help the AIDS Foundation of Chicago accomplish its mission?
DM: The AIDS Foundation of Chicago as well as other AIDS organizations has lot of opportunities for people to get involved. People can volunteer, donate, or get involved with any of the programs. For instance, I'm starting training next week for the Team AIDS Marathon here in Chicago and I'll be running 22.2 miles.
Since 1985, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago has been a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Through its programs, partnerships, and collaborations, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago has improved the lives of those living with HIV and AIDS in areas concerning funding outreach and prevention, healthcare, and other advocacy endeavors. For more information visit www.aidschicago.org.