Sister Ida of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence charity is surrounded by fellow participants at the World AIDS Day remembrance.
Sister Ida of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence charity takes part in World AIDS Day vigil in Hillcrest. Photo by Chris Stone

Assemblyman Todd Gloria joked Friday night at Village Hillcrest about “what passes for a cold evening in San Diego.”

The annual remembrance day is dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS and honoring those who died from the disease. Photo by Chris Stone

But the chill of HIV — and what a Washington tax bill might do to hurt access to treatment — pervaded a World AIDS Day event where he spoke.

“We must fight back against attempts to take away health care from millions of our neighbors because it’s a direct nexus to this epidemic and our ability to be the generation that ends the spread of HIV,” Gloria said at the 26th annual Tree of Life ceremony.

Saying he never misses this memorial event, the former City Council member reminded a crowd of 150 that “this year, with your support, … HIV is no longer a crime.”

With lead author Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, Gloria helped pass SB 239. Signed Oct. 6 by Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure says it’s no longer a felony to expose others to the human immunodeficiency virus — punishable by as much as eight years in prison.

Instead, HIV transmission is now a misdemeanor. (“Our guess is that about 20,000 San Diegans have HIV, but only about a third actually know their status,” Gloria said.)

“We are leading the way for the rest of the nation when it comes to our response to this disease,” he said, noting that felony prosecutions under the law enacted during the 1980s AIDS scare disproportionally impacted women, “and particularly women of color. What are we doing locking up people who have HIV?”

It was a year ago, at this same event, when newly elected Gloria was approached by a resident, he recalled after his remarks.

“I know about your new job, and I’d like you to do something,” he was told: End the felony status of transmitting HIV.

Gloria said California is the third — and largest — state to reduce willful HIV exposure to a less severe crime.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria spoke about this year’s achievements and hopes for the future. Photo by Chris Stone

“We’re overjoyed,” he said, while noting how the “soundbite” summary of the issue makes it sound as if “you’re legalizing the spread of HIV.”

Gloria, a Democrat representing the 78th District, said that’s not the case.

“We’re not criminalizing it and we’re not treating it differently than other diseases,” he said. “And when you know about the medications we have now — where you really can control this — we want people to come forward, because if they do, they’ll get into care, they won’t spread the disease and they’ll be able to live a long and healthy life.”

He said the bill reduces the stigma of having HIV — a reason people opt not to be tested for the disease behind AIDS.

“If you’re fearful of getting a felony conviction, you probably don’t have an incentive to get tested,” he said. “This disease has changed a lot since it arrived on the scene in the early 1980s. And we need to update our laws to reflect that.”

Hours before the U.S. Senate approved a tax overhaul 51-49, Gloria worried about what its provisions weakening Obamacare might do to the AIDS fight.

“That could impair people’s access to health care, and we know that many people with HIV do access Medicaid and some of the exchanges,” he said.

He said the bill’s estimated $1.5 trillion boost to the national debt could lead to cuts in entitlement programs.

“And these are the kinds of programs that have helped to allow people who have HIV to continue to live, to access the needed drugs,” he said. “And also to fund the research that created those drugs.”

Gloria said San Diego has been “on the front lines of creating these life-changing drugs that allow so many of our neighbors to live and thrive for many years to come.”

Alberto Cortés, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, spoke about progress with AIDS treatment and hope for the future. Photo by Chris Stone

Alberto Cortés, executive director of Mama’s Kitchen, detailed progress in the AIDS fight – including the fact his San Diego institution takes care of about 1,300 people a year.

“A majority of those are people with HIV,” he said, but now about 35 percent of clients are those with other critical illnesses, including cancer, Hepatitis A and congestive heart failure.

“We have seen a subtle but consistent reduction in the needs of nutrition for HIV [patients] because of health treatment and effectiveness of medications,” Cortés told Times of San Diego.

The Rev. Dan Koeshall of The Metropolitan Community Church of San Diego did the invocation at Friday’s event for perhaps the 10th time, witnessed by Gloria’s District 3 successor Chris Ward and new District 1 Councilwoman Barbara Bry.

The pastor later recalled the “devastating” 1980s, when about a third of the men in his congregation died of AIDS.

“And we’re so grateful that those days are past,” Koeshall said. “So we remember them and still have hope for today.”

At the Tree of Life event, candles were lit, the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus performed and clear plastic ornaments with paper slips naming the passed were strung on a Christmas tree.

Family and friends gathered at Village Hillcrest to remember their loved ones lost to AIDS. Photo by Chris Stone

Koeshall called it a time to “remember the loved ones that we’ve lost and to keep them alive in our hearts and also to have hope for the future of which we can have continued medical advancement, continued education and more access to medications that are available.

“And perhaps, soon, we will see the generation where HIV and AIDS transmissions will end.”

Cortés, the Mama’s Kitchen leader, and Gloria echoed the sentiment.

Cortés expressed a hope for 2018 that HIV patients “have access to complete and unfettered outpatient care so that you can reach the goal of having zero virus or HIV undetectable and be able to have a long and prosperous life.”

Gloria urged the crowd to call, write, tweet and Snapchat — “and whatever it is the kids do these days” — to “make sure that those in positions of power know that this disease is not over.”

He said it’s not just about the Affordable Care Act, but “whether or not we can send this disease to the dustbin of history.”

Continue the fight, he implored — “not just on World AIDS Day but every single day of the year. We will be the generation that defeats HIV.”