Sir Elton John
International AIDS Conference
July 23, 2012
Thank you, Luiz, and good afternoon to you all.
I’m extremely honored to be here.
I’d like to begin with a story.
It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality.
A young man who got mixed up in drugs and drink.
He took chances with unprotected sex, and he was at very high risk of contracting HIV.
This young man hit absolute rock bottom.
His life was a mess.
He was self-destructive.
He was angry.
He was spiraling out of control.
He should have died, to be honest. And he almost did.
But then, something amazing happened.
People showed him compassion and love.
People showed him respect and understanding.
People offered him a hand and a chance to get better.
And he DID get better. He turned everything around.
He has a wonderful life, a loving partner, and a beautiful son.
He’s been sober for 22 years.
Now, he’s standing in front of you giving this speech.
Ladies and gentlemen, by all rights, I shouldn’t be here.
I should be dead. Six feet under, in a wood box.
I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s.
Just like Freddie Mercury.
Just like Rock Hudson.
Just like so many friends and loved ones of yours and mine.
Every day, I wonder: how did I survive?
I don’t know the answer, and I never will.
But I do know WHY I’m here.
I’m here to deliver to you, and to anyone who will listen, the message that saved my life…
…the message that can save MILLIONS of lives if we put it to practice:
No matter who you are, or who you love…
No matter where you live, or how you live…
No matter what you have or haven’t done…
EVERYONE deserves compassion.
EVERYONE deserves dignity.
EVERYONE, EVERYONE, EVERYONE deserves love.
Why am I telling you this?
Because the AIDS disease is caused by a virus, but the AIDS epidemic is not.
The AIDS epidemic is fueled by stigma. By hate. By misinformation. By ignorance. By indifference.
There’s much talk now about the end of AIDS. And rightly so.
We CAN end AIDS, thanks to you. You have made it possible.
Because of your research and your advocacy, we have lifesaving treatment and prevention.
But that’s not good enough.
It isn’t good enough to beat this disease once and for all.
You know it, and I know it.
We need more than medicine. We need more than money.
We need LOVE.
If that word makes you uncomfortable, if it makes you a bit uneasy, let’s pick another.
Compassion. Kindness. Understanding. Empathy.
Call it whatever you’d like, but the idea is the same:
We need more humanity — more love — if we’re going to end AIDS.
I’ve just been to the unfolding of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where I saw so much love for the dead.
What we need now is more love for the living.
Cynics might say, how can a sentiment possibly beat a virus?
That’s an easy question to answer — especially for the people in this room who have dedicated their lives to ending AIDS.
It’s been three decades of this epidemic, and we’ve seen how human beings react when those around them become HIV-positive.
There are some people who look at the sick and search for reasons to blame them.
She’s got HIV? It must be her fault. It’s because she’s a drug user, or a prostitute.
He has AIDS? It’s because he’s gay. Because he’s poor.
They must deserve it, these people.
They live immoral lives.
They deserve to be sick and to die, because they’ve brought it on themselves.
And then there are people who look at the sick and think of reasons to love them.
You’re ill? I’ll be ill one day, too.
You have personal struggles? So do I.
You’re dying? There will come a time when I am also dying.
How can I help you? How can I love you?
After thirty-one years and thirty million people gone, we have seen both responses, you and I.
We’ve seen hate in Uganda. Stigma in the Ukraine. Indifference in America.
We’ve seen gay people targeted, discriminated against, and even killed.
We’ve seen people living with HIV ostracized by their families and stigmatized by their communities.
We’ve seen AIDS orphans abandoned in the streets, children raped and abused.
It makes me sick, all of this fear — all of this ignorance and hate.
But we’ve also seen love, haven’t we?
We’ve seen monks working with drug addicts in Thailand.
Social workers helping HIV-positive prisoners.
Corporations putting lives ahead of profits.
We’ve seen Catholic nuns and priests helping sex workers in India…and I know that Jesus is smiling down on them despite what the Vatican may say!
We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV.
Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it.
Nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all.
Thanks to all of this compassion, thanks to all of this love, more than 8 million people are on treatment.
Thanks to people who have chosen to care, and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.
It’s not a mirage. It’s real. It’s very, very real.
But it’s going to take a lot more compassion to get us there.
A hell of a lot more.
How exactly can compassion get us to our destination, some may ask?
Let me tell you.
Do you want to end new infections among injection drug users?
Well, you’re not going to do it by locking them up or leaving them to die of addiction or AIDS.
That only spreads the disease and the suffering.
We need to give these people support, clean needles, and treatment.
Instead of judging them, let’s help them.
Instead of despising them, we need to love them.
Do you want to curb new infections among MSM in Africa?
You’re not going to do it by stoning gay men and passing laws against homosexuality.
For Christ’s sake, this is the 21st century, not the 12th century!
Show compassion to ALL of your people, like President Joyce Banda of Malawi does.
If you show compassion, no one will be forced into the shadows.
If you show compassion, no one will be afraid to seek treatment.
Do you want to stop the epidemic in South Africa?
Then show compassion by telling those living with HIV to be proud of knowing their status.
That’s what the South African government is beginning to do — and it’s working.
We need to put our arms around people who are HIV-positive. Celebrate the actions of individual change. Celebrate people who are willing to get tested.
That’s the compassion that will help get everyone tested and on treatment.
Do you want to end the epidemic in America?
Then show compassion to those who can’t afford treatment and are on waiting lists to receive it.
Show compassion for HIV-positive people in Washington, DC, most of whom are poor and black and forgotten, even though they live in the capital of the richest and most powerful nation on earth.
America has shown so much love for those living with HIV in the developing world. If this country wanted to end new infections at home it could do so in a heartbeat.
All it takes is a bit more funding — a bit more understanding.
All it takes is dialogue and the power of words to change actions.
All it takes is the compassion that my friends Elizabeth Glaser and Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Kramer and Ryan White taught us about decades ago.
Maybe you think I’m naive. Maybe you think I’m off my rocker.
Here I am, telling an audience of 7,000 global health experts that we can end AIDS with love.
I know we need more than that.
We need prevention programs to be funded.
We need treatment programs to be expanded.
We need critical research to continue.
We need a vaccine to be discovered.
Everyone at this conference is united by the dream of universal treatment, prevention, and a vaccine.
We dream about it every day, you and I.
And god bless everyone who is working to make that dream a reality.
But even if our dream came true — even if we HAD a vaccine — it wouldn’t be enough.
A vaccine won’t end stigma in Eastern Europe.
A vaccine won’t end homophobia in Uganda.
A vaccine won’t end rapes in South Africa.
A vaccine won’t help poor people who can’t afford it in Asia.
A vaccine won’t change laws in America that criminalize those with HIV.
Science can stop the disease, but science ALONE can’t end the plague.
Yes, we now have accurate and inexpensive at-home tests for HIV.
But we can’t convince people to get tested if they feel that nobody cares about them.
Why would you bother if you’re told by society that your life doesn’t count?
Yes, we now have miraculous treatments that double as prevention.
But we can’t get those living with HIV on treatment if they’re afraid to disclose their status because of stigma or homophobia.
Yes, I hope and pray that we will discover a vaccine. We all do.
But we won’t get that vaccine to those in need if governments shun their most marginalized citizens.
THAT is why compassion is critical.
THAT is why love is the cure.
Millions of people around the world feel ashamed because of who they are, because of their HIV-positive status, because of their sexuality, because of their poverty.
They are ashamed because they feel they’ve done something wrong by how they live, or the disease they have, or who they love.
They feel subhuman, worthless, like they don’t matter at all.
Shame and stigma prevent them from getting help, from getting treatment, from protecting themselves in the first place.
I’ve felt that shame before.
It almost killed me.
It’s killing people all around the world, right now.
We have to stop it.
We have to replace the shame with love.
We have to replace the stigma with compassion.
No one gets left behind.
That is how we will end this plague.
In 1995, I released a song called “Believe.”
In one verse, I sing:
I believe in love, it’s all we’ve got
Love has no boundaries, no borders to cross
Love is simple, hate breeds
Those who think difference is the child of disease
I truly believe that love is the most powerful force in the world.
I know that from experience.
During the darkest days of my recovery from addiction, I was shown extraordinary compassion by people I didn’t even know.
People whose names I never even learned.
Nurses who worked at the clinic where I was receiving treatment.
Other patients who didn’t know me as Elton the rock star, only as Elton the addict.
Everyone around me was kind, everyone was compassionate, everyone was forgiving.
Their love changed my life. It saved my life.
The gift of love from a community of people who believe in you and support you — it’s the most remarkable gift you could ever receive.
It costs nothing at all, but it’s the most precious thing in the world.
Everyone deserves it.
Not nearly enough people receive it.
But we can do something about that, you and I.
We MUST do something about that.
And when we do, I promise you:
We will wake up from this 31-year nightmare into a brand new day.