HIV advocacy goes ‘Vogue’

By Trevor Ballanger

Like a time capsule, home-video footage of a 13-year-old boy performing the choreography in Madonna’s “Vogue” music video at his bar mitzvah 20 years ago has become a viral YouTube sensation and shined a spotlight on the boy—who is now a man—as one of Chicago’s biggest advocates for HIV and AIDS awareness.

Sperling said he decided HIV and AIDS awareness would be his lifelong cause when he was a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. While he isn’t HIV positive and hasn’t personally known anyone with the disease, he said he had a natural sensitivity to it as a gay man and thinks its negative stigma is a matter to be reckoned with.

“Not only do people living with HIV and AIDS have to live with the physical [and] emotional ramifications of the disease and living with the possibility of dying from it, but they also have to deal with the ridicule, the persecution, the stigma attached to it,” Sperling said.

“It’s stigmatized because it’s secret so much of the time. People can’t talk about it, and if you don’t talk about it, you can’t beat it.”

Educating people about the topic is one of the hardest issues for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago to overcome, said Rhett Lindsay, the foundation’s director of fundraising events. He said while the number of people with HIV and AIDS has stabilized, the diseases are still affecting younger populations, mostly between the ages of 19 and 25.

He said the success of Sperling’s video has led to an increase in donations and volunteers, particularly for the AIDS Run and Walk

on Sept. 30.

Community activists and physicians founded the AIDS Foundation of Chicago in 1985 to create more HIV and AIDS outreach services. It hosts advocacy projects like the Team to End AIDS, a marathon and triathlon program that raises money for other

HIV and AIDS organizations.

“Our recruitment numbers are higher than they were last year,” Lindsay said. “And our fundraising [efforts are more than] last year, so I would like to attribute some of those to his efforts.”

There will be more than 6,000 people at the event, he added.

Cecilia Boyd, a team manager and program coordinator for Team to End AIDS, said educating people is often a priority because skeptics fail to realize that some people have the disease through circumstances beyond their control, like children born to HIV-positive mothers, she said.

The program also assists people both in raising money for the organization and reaching their fitness training goals for marathons

and triathlons.

“We do have a number of sponsors who help us run our program without having to dip into the participants’ fundraising,” Boyd said. “We want to ensure every year that 93 cents of every dollar they raise, we try to give back to the foundation and then the other costs are used to operate the program.”

According to Boyd, Sperling’s profession has been beneficial to him in finding donators, as he is able to reach people unfamiliar with HIV and AIDS organizations.

Sperling said his legal career gives him the credibility to bring in donations and the ability to articulate and stand up for himself

and others.

Sperling compared fashion designer Kenneth Cole’s advertising slogan, “We All Have AIDS,” with support for cancer foundations. He said people can support the search for a cure for cancer without having it themselves, and the same should apply to HIV and AIDS.

“He’s a trendsetter,” Lindsay said. “He’s great at what he does and he is truly a leader through his efforts.”