Overcoming Societal Barriers to Fight HIV

By Rob Banaszak on October 27, 2010 in Every Life Matters, Every Dollar Counts

by Mary Lou Moreno
Coordinator, Border AIDS Partnership, El Paso, TX
Member, National AIDS Fund Board of Trustees

My name is Mary Lou Moreno. I am Coordinator of the Border AIDS Partnership in El Paso, Texas. I am also a member of the Board of Trustees of the National AIDS Fund. I want to share with you today why the “Every Life Matters, Every Dollar Counts” campaign is so such an important initiative, and why it is so close to my heart. The money raised by this campaign will be directed solely toward communities of color, like the one I belong to, so that they can continue to support programs that fight HIV/AIDS in their respective communities. I can testify firsthand how important such assistance can be for communities such as mine.

About twenty years ago my youngest son tested HIV positive. He was 30 years old at the time. Fortunately, he has remained completely asymptomatic in the last two decades. He is a very positive individual and does everything possible to help himself and everyone around him.

Of course, when I first found out, I was devastated—back then, people didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS and it seemed like a death sentence. I started trying to learn everything I could about the disease, and have since been involved in working toward HIV/AIDS education and awareness in my community – largely through the Border AIDS Partnership, which I helped establish. We’re the only partnership that’s bi-national and tri-state: we have been providing funding for HIV/AIDS education and prevention activities in El Paso, Texas, Southern New Mexico, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The money we receive from the “Every Life Matters, Every Dollar Counts” campaign will be invaluable in allowing us to continue doing this work.

It is an uphill battle. We’re funding some of the poorest communities and a number of migrants. In El Paso, we’re primarily a community of color – pretty much Hispanic and Catholic. Our culture is different from a lot of other communities in the country. Twenty years ago especially, it wasn’t acceptable to talk about HIV/AIDS or about homosexuality. I’ll give you an example from my personal life. Our family ran a photographic business in our town. When my son and my stepson came out as being gay, we started working for various HIV/AIDS groups and organizations but didn’t talk too much about any of it in the community because we didn’t know how it would affect our livelihood.

Then one day, the steeple on El Paso’s only Catholic cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was struck by lightning. One of the church members wrote a letter to the local newspaper, saying that this happened because of the church’s growing tolerance for gay people. There was an editorial in the paper about it that week – it was awful. That’s when my husband decided that it was time for us to do something about it. He talked to our boys and said he was going to appear on a talk show and take a stand – he would tell the world that his son and stepson are gay and that we support them fully. Our sons were all right with it. So, my husband and a very good friend of ours, a Catholic priest, went on the show together and talked about the Catholic Church being supportive of all God’s children. They emphasized that God created us all, and He doesn’t make any mistakes. As it turned out, it didn’t affect most of our customers. My husband got many positive calls, and very few negative ones from people who said they wouldn’t be doing business with us – which is fine because we don’t care to be doing business with people like them either!

Of course, it is very hard to change people’s views – some you do and some you don’t. Some Hispanic parents find it very hard to accept they have a gay son or a lesbian daughter. But there is always the possibility of change. After my son tested positive for HIV, my husband and I became active members of a national organization called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) for a long time. All kinds of people would come and speak at those meetings – ministers who talked about accepting your children and about how to deal with HIV/AIDS, psychologists who’d talk about how homosexuality is not a choice but something you’re born with…. Sometimes, there would be a couple that wouldn’t be able to talk at the meetings. In those situations, we’d meet them either at their home or at a coffee place. My husband and I would tell them that we belong to a Catholic Hispanic community. Still, we both have sons who are gay and we have accepted it, and one of our sons is HIV positive and we are dealing with it. So we’d speak from our own experience and try to get the point across. Like I said, sometimes it would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t.

Over the last two decades, things have become much better in El Paso, thanks to the efforts of extraordinary individuals and organizations that have been working to spread awareness and acceptance. Which is why I am terribly proud to support the “Every Life Matters, Every Dollar Counts” campaign – a campaign that is helping raise funds for these community-based groups so that they can continue doing their outstanding work. From my personal experience, I know what an uphill battle it is for families and individuals dealing with HIV/AIDS – socially, economically, physically… Each one of us can make a difference; each one of us can help make this fight just a little bit easier.

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