In 1988, Jeff Taylor was given a death sentence.
“I’m a 40 year survivor,” said Taylor, one of the organizers the sixth annual Aging Positively—Reunion Project conference. “I had HIV early on before anybody knew what it was and how to protect yourself. I lived through the really horrible early days, never knowing. I didn’t get tested until ’88. … I knew from the people I’d been with that I was positive, and sure enough, when I did get tested, I had an AIDS diagnosis, so I knew I’d been infected for a number of years. (I was told I had) two years to live in 1988. That’s what they were telling people.”
Thankfully, Taylor is alive and well, and he’ll be one of the presenters at the Aging Positively—Reunion Project conference, which is taking place online from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 18. Registration for the event—a collaboration between the HIV+ Aging Research Project-Palm Springs and a variety of local nonprofits—is free via Eventbrite.
Taylor has been involved in the Palm Springs conference from the start, which has evolved to include a wide variety of collaborators who joined forces, including DAP Health, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, Borrego Health and others. While organizers plan for the in-person conference to return in the future, this is the second year in which it will take place online.
“It really is a community-wide collaboration,” Taylor said. “When COVID happened last year, we had to obviously cancel our spring event, because that was when thing first hit the fan. We decided to combine our events in the fall, but it had to be a virtual event for us. It worked out really well. So going forward, we decided that we’ll do it each fall on or around Sept. 18, which is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day.”
Taylor said the Aging Positively—Reunion Project conference is much needed in Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley because of the large concentration of long-term HIV survivors who live here.
“It’s long been kind of a mecca for LGBT folks, and that includes people living with HIV,” Taylor said. “In recent years, a lot of people have been forced out of expensive places like the Castro and the Bay Area, Los Angeles … and all the expensive coastal cities. So we’ve got a lot of people who’ve been uprooted and moved here, and so they’re dealing with not just that, but with all the effects of living for 40 years of the HIV pandemic, whether they were positive the whole time or not—just living through that, watching their friends and neighbors die, and wondering when they were going to be next. There’s a lot of what we call AIDS Survivor Syndrome, which is really PTSD.
“The whole idea of this was to bring people together and re-create that sense of community that we had early on that had gotten lost. People (in the general public) kind of think AIDS is over; the meds work, and they’d moved on to other things, and so people really feel left out of the conversation. Of course, as you age, especially in the gay community, you tend to become invisible, anyway.”
Taylor said the conference is needed now more than ever, as the world approaches the COVID-19 pandemic’s two-year point.
“They’ve lived through one pandemic; now we’re living through another,” he said. “They’ve made it this far, but there are limits to people’s resiliency, especially when other issues like health and mental health issues are compounding it as well. So we find that people really need a place to connect.”
The programming will include everything from Let’s Kick ASS’ Brian DeVries speaking about “sustaining and making new friendships late in life,” to an HIV research-update panel. Taylor said he’s particularly looking forward to the “HIV and the Media” discussion featuring ABC7 Los Angeles’ Karl Schmid.
“He himself is LGBTQ and positive, and talks about coming out as a positive gay man in the industry and what that’s been like, and what it’s been like to be on the front lines to watch how they cover LGBT and HIV issues as a journalist,” Taylor said. “I think that’s going to be really good, because he’s a great speaker. I’ve heard and seen him in action.”
The keynote speaker will be Erasure’s Andy Bell.
“We’re very lucky and fortunate to have gotten him,” Taylor said.
The Aging Positively—Reunion Project conference takes place online from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 18. Registration is free via Eventbrite. For more info, including a complete list of speakers, visit www.daphealth.org/hivandagingconference.