HIV/AIDS in the South: Still Fighting the Stigma

By jschneidewind on July 29, 2011 in AIDS at 30

by Ann D, HIV Advocate

I became involved in the HIV/AIDS community when my friend’s brother died of “the flu”, alone, in secret, and afraid to tell his family, in the early 90′s.

My friend and I committed to try to do something — anything — to prevent someone else’s brother from a similar fate. We joined Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (R.A.I.N.) and were assigned a “Care Partner.” At the time, all we could do was try to help our Care Partner die with dignity, while providing as much comfort and assistance as we could in the process.   AIDS was still a death sentence in our small, backwater state and he died a very painful death a few years after we joined the team.

Never in my wildest dreams or nightmares did I believe I would one day be HIV-pPositive.  We were taught HIV/AIDS was a “gay disease.”  Why would a happily married mom, a Southern Baptist deacon’s daughter, think she would be at risk of exposure?

Who knew divorce would rear its ugly head in my future or that I would keep getting sick for four years after the divorce was final?   Doctor after doctor kept telling me it was “stress related” and made me feel like a hypochondriac. It occurred to none of them to test me for HIV, despite the fact that I revealed, with patient/doctor confidentially of course, that I divorced due to adultery.

It was 1997 before I was diagnosed with viral meningitis and as HIV-pPositive. By 1999, I was diagnosed with AIDS.

Pr to my HIV diagnosis, I had become an HIV advocate and activist, serving through the local AIDS Foundation.

Each month or so, another HIV-positive friend died.

I continued my activism after diagnosis, of course, but was forced to keep my diagnosis a secret, as I still had a career. Revealing my status would have ended my career. It was difficult being an activist. The stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS was one of the battles I helped others fight,  and I knew well the consequences of revealing status.

Unfortunately, that has not changed.

My health has steadily declined and I am now disabled by AIDS. My career ended.

To a certain point, I have revealed my status. I speak to our Legislatures and am a guest speaker at schools, colleges, and churches. My concern now is for my family if I disclose publicly, on TV or in the newspaper.

Our state is full of uneducated people that still believe people that have the virus “did something illegal or immoral” and therefore they “deserve to die.” Once their status is revealed, they and their families are shunned. They are no longer welcome in many churches. In some rural areas, people still must worry about physical attacks and property damage.

I am currently serving on our state’s CPG, (Community Planning Guide), a state-wide coalition of the Arkansas Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and community based organizations from all over the state. We are also involving the faith community. Our focus is HIV prevention, including education and elimination of stigma and discrimination, which must happen in order to get people to start testing. We have a monumental task ahead of us.

Personally, I’ve had a monumental task getting HIV-positive people to join me in serving on the CPG. Stepping forward to be known as HIV-positive, even 30 years into this epidemic, with stigma and discrimination still rampant in the South, takes a tremendous amount of courage.

It amazes me the difference given this virus and H1N1.  Think of it.

Look at the MASSIVE advertising and education program done for H1N1. Bet you can’t find 100 Americans that don’t something about how to protect themselves from H1N1. Kids now cough & sneeze into their sleeves.  Those same 100 Americans couldn’t tell you much accurate info about HIV.

Most would completely recover from H1N1 in a few weeks. There is no cure for HIV.

In 30 years, there’s never been a serious, massive education, advertising blitz campaign like the six month campaign for H1N1. It was on every talk show and news broadcast. There were TV ads during all time slots and not at 2 a.m. like the few for HIV.

I’m doing more advocate work and more prevention work than I’ve done since I started, yet more people are testing positive in the South than last year.

We’re losing the war against HIV here in the South.

Until we have a nation-wide educational media blitz done like the one for H1N1, we will continue to lose. Six months would educate, end the stigma, and change completely future of HIV/AIDS in America !!!!

1 Comment

Post a Comment

We'd love to hear what you think about this piece! Submit your comments below and join the discussion.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

< Back to the blog