National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: What's Your HIV Status?
With that in mind, today being National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day takes on a special importance. Last week when I attended the State of the Black Union, I kept thinking the discussion would shift from the political wrangling over Obama's accountability to how how we empower and educate black women to be accountable to ourselvves and safeguard our health. Unfortunately, even in that forum, a discussion about what we need to do to stop HIV/AIDS from killing us in pandemic numbers did not take place.
Indeed, back in 1994, death was on the mind of a New Orleans native named Gina who'd just found out that she was HIV+. She only found out her status due to being tested as a part of prenatal care. Here's her talking about how she found out her diagnosis.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Gina about her experience and why she dedicates so much of her time working with an organization called The Southern AIDS Living Quilt. I'm grateful for the opportunity because, as Gina shared, "No one's ever really thought about how it’s your daughter, your momma, it’s your sister, it’s your best friend. A face needs to be put to the disease. We need to connect to that face, that story."
After getting the initial call from Charity Hospital about her diagnosis, Gina went in to talk to the nurses. They gave her some pamphlets and held her hand, but she was determined to go home and kill herself. Why do such a thing? Well, she figured she was going to die anyway and she didn't know of any other living women who were HIV+.
In fact, Gina was so convinced that she might be the first woman in America to be HIV+ that she thought reporters were going to be standing outside her door when she got home. It may seem silly that she thought this, but keep in mind that only a year earlier, in 1993, a national face had been put on AIDS/HIV through the Tom Hanks movie, "Philadelphia". Clearly, Tom Hanks' HIV+, white, gay male character is not a black heterosexual woman.
Gina bravely told four people about her diagnosis on the same day she found out her status. Even though her mom is old-fashioned and, as Gina said, "You just don't come home and say certain things to your mom," her mom knew from looking at Gina's face when she came home from the hospital that something was wrong. Her two sisters also heard the news at the same time since they were at home too.
Then she phoned the father of her children. She admits with a chuckle that she did not have the courage to tell him face to face because she thought he would kill her.
Gina's baby's father ended up testing negative, and, thanks to bi-weekly care at a Charity Hospital clinic, her daughter was also born HIV negative. However, despite this good news, Gina still spent the first year after her diagnosis in a deep depression. She created a detailed funeral plan that included her desire to have Tupac's song, "Dear Mama" played at her services. She also picked out the suit she wanted to be buried in and chose the six pallbearers that would bear her casket.
Things did not turn out as Gina expected. Between 1997 and 2001, all six of her chosen pallbearers were murdered. And then Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, washing away both Gina's written-out funeral plans and her burial suit.
Rather than sink into a complete depression, Gina took all this adversity as a sign that she needed to stop thinking about dying and focus instead on what she could do with the time she had left.
Hurricane Katrina's destruction meant that Gina was unable to return home to New Orleans until 2007. She knew there were many HIV+ women who weren't receiving any medical care, and so, encouraged by her children to tell her story, she went on a local news channel. Before Gina's segment was even over, women were calling in, saying they knew they were HIV+, but they'd never been to a doctor.
After that, Gina says she'd see people out in public looking at her, "Trying to figure out where they knew me from."
At first she was concerned since prior to going on TV she had a lot of worries that people would treat her bad or even burn down her house because they knew she was HIV+. Instead, Gina found that people would come up to her, hug her, tell her how brave she is and beg her to keep doing what she's doing.
In her current work with the Southern AIDS Living Quilt, Gina does whatever she can to ensure that women and girls are educated, empowered and encouraged about HIV/AIDS. Remember those guest speakers in your health class? Gina's one of those people who goes to share her story with students and educates them about how to prevent HIV infection.
Gina's all for a comprehensive sexual education in schools. "Sex is such a mystery," she says, "And kids want to know what's the big deal with it." She talks about both condoms and abstinence as ways to prevent HIV infection. "I would love for my daughter to wait. But if she doesn't, I want her to be protected."
Gina's also a student these days and is working towards a Social Work degree. In every class she's taken she's told her fellow students about her status. "I want them to know what it looks like and I want them to know that if they're infected, they have someone to talk to.
But why is this affecting black women, particularly those in the South at such a high rate? Is it the fault of all the down-low brothas that J.L. King put on blast on the Oprah Winfrey Show five years ago?
Gina acknowledges that the down-low black man contributes to the problem of HIV/AIDS in the black community but she refuses to place the entire blame on the phenomenon. "It isn't as prevalent as the media would allow you to think," she says. Pure heterosexual promiscuity as well as IV drug use contribute just as much.
Also at play are the cultural pressures black women often feel to not not use condoms. Gina says that back in the day when she'd tell a guy she wanted to use a condom, he'd say, "What's wrong with you? " and assume that she was going to give him something. She'd back down from asking for a condom just so the guy would like her and still want to sleep with her.
She thinks the black male incarceration rate has an impact on HIV infection numbers, but not in the way I initially thought. Gina explained to me that it's not just a matter of men having sex in prison, getting infected and then infecting their wives and girlfriends when they get out.
In neighborhoods, "You may have one block with ten women and one guy, and they aren't ashamed to share him. A lot of women are being infected by the same man, but there's a shortage of men and we don't care."
I remember seeing this same sort of thing when I was in college. A guy would have one girl on the north side of campus and one on the south side, and they'd both know about each other.
Gina firmly believes we have to change the mindset of black girls that having a little piece of man is better than no man at all. In her own life she, "Never had a time when my children's father didn't cheat, but I stayed because I had a piece of a man."
The work she does is especially urgent because she says she's starting to see infections in formerly HIV negative girls who were born to HIV positive mothers. She dreads the idea of this happening to her own daughter so tells her daughter every day that she loves her and does everything she can to build her confidence. "Our girls don’t get that they’re beautiful, that God made you and you’re perfect. You don’t have to have blond hair to be beautiful or hair down to your butt."
I asked Gina why she thinks there's still not a real national campaign talking about rates of HIV infection in the black community.
"If we don't talk about it, it doesn't exist," she says. "In the '70's, no one wanted to admit they knew a gay person. In the '80's and '90's no one wanted to admit they had a crackhead in the family. Now it's HIV."
"We have all these reality shows but nothing to really put a message out there for women."
Nowadays, on top of raising her daughter, going to school and all of her HIV/AIDS education work, Gina works on staying healthy. She takes four pills at night, rests, eats right, exercises and tries to keep a positive outlook on life. "I've learned to pick my battles," she says.Gina also has made time for love. She now in a relationship with a guy who’s HIV negative. "It’s my first good healthy relationship and it’s great," she says.
She laughed as she told me how she's realized that if she'd actually followed through on her suicidal thoughts back in 1994, she wouldn’t have seen Obama get elected. "I have a true appreciation for my life and I thank God for the days, because at least I'm alive."
And at that point in the conversation, I began to cry. Throughout our conversation, I'd been so struck by how positive and light-hearted Gina seemed despite everything-- I'm still stuck on her six pallbearers being murdered-- but she is determined to be an advocate for women and HIV/AIDS issues and I truly admire that.
So, in the spirit of National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and in honor of Gina, please make a commitment this week to get yourself tested for HIV. If your status is negative, educate yourself about what you need to do to make sure you keep it that way.
And if you end up finding out that your status is positive? Well, Gina's a perfect example of how an HIV+ status doesn't have to mean your life is over and done. You deserve to know whether or not you are infected so that you can get the health care you need, and so you can do whatever you need to do to not infect other men or women.
Stopping the spread of HIV begins and ends with each of us. PLEASE make the right choice and get tested.