Leading up to the conference I attended last week, I found myself seeking new hair styles, clothes and make up. I think subconsciously I realized, I was going to a very diverse place to work with a lot of diverse people and wanted to look a lot less “Mid West”. But I am Mid West, so the few little tweeks I made were pretty subtle in the big scheme of things.
I knew I would be a minority in New Orleans and even more so at the HIV/Social Work conference. A straight, white, Michigan girl with a Conservative Christian background… nope, there were not going to be a lot of those hanging around. Which in all honesty is FABULOUS. I get very claustrophobic in my world of sameness. But I was afraid of appearing naïve (which I am) and not taken seriously (which did happen a few times). My co-worker and I were the only people from West Michigan and in fact, one of a handful of people from the mid west (especially smaller cities).
But I embraced every second of this eclectic group of HIV advocates and case managers. I learned so much from them in sessions, side conversations, and coffee dates. I learned that the history of HIV/AIDS is being left behind. There are people infected and affected by HIV that do not know who Ryan White or Magic Johnson are. And that is not good. This is a history that we all need to be aware of. HIV/AIDS in the 80’s was discrimination and destruction. It was death. People were as untouchable as lepers. They were judged and condemned. We cannot forget this.
We also cannot ignore the incredible advances in medicine that allowed people to live. I met a man, a PhD., from Columbia University who watched his brother die of AIDS, only for him to live. A healthy and productive life. I met many people who are infected and have undetectable levels of the virus in their blood stream. And I heard stories of people who, in our cities in American (D.C., L.A., Philly, NYC, Chicago…) that are dying. Because they are homeless and scared and hopeless and helpless. One person in a session I attended said “People are not dying of AIDS, they are dying of Shame.”
SHAME. That is a heavy word. Can you even believe we live in a world in which a person dies of shame? And why is that? Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”, and I have always clung to that, but I sometime wonder if it is not completely true. Because you can love and value yourself, but at some point, after so much prejudice, discrimination, stigma and hate, the burden of identity has to be taken off you and placed back on the person, group, community who is doing the hurting. And that is how people die of shame.
I don’t want to hear: “But it was brought on themselves, they know about safe sex, and needle sharing”. That is a statement made out of ignorance and fear. When a person is trying to survive, food and shelter are the first thoughts. And if you need to have survival sex to have a safe place to sleep then that is what you do. This is not a time to blame or judge. It is a time to learn and embrace.
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