National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: What's Your HIV Status?

When I first heard about AIDS back in 1982, it was presented as a disease that infected white gay men living in major urban areas like Los Angeles. Who could have predicted that almost 30 years later it would end up being the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25-34? And who could have predicted that the area of the country where black women are most affected is the South?

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.

Comments

Anonymous said…
STD's of all kinds are more rampant han any of us like to believe and women are at such high risk given the delicacy of vaginal tissue. Last time I was tested I was negative, but I know it is luck rather than virtue that brough that result. Good for Gina for speaking out.
Unknown said…
THANK YOU LIZ!!
Forwarding to my 19 yrold neice right now!

Girl, you really are like fine wine...you keep getting better and better!!!

GREAT post and thanks to Gina for sharing her strength and her story...I know she has saved many lives ~
Liz Dwyer said…
Citizen,
Yes, the STD infection rates as a whole are insane. It's sad to see so many young women and girls who think it'll never happen to them. They think that if they're sleeping with college educated, successful or rich guys that they're safe from HIV infection and that's just not true.

House,
Thanks so much and so glad you forwarded this to your niece. I'm so appreciative of Gina's willingness to talk about her experiences. Thank goodness there are some folks out there are listening and learning from it.
Unknown said…
Excellent article, Liz! Thank you for the work you put into this, and thank God for Gina's courage to keep putting a very real face to the AIDS crisis in the Black community!

I nearly bled to death in 2002 from menorrhagia caused by fibroid tumors. It took a total of four blood transfusions to save my life. Even though the blood supply is "screened" for the HIV virus, I'm not 100% sure that the blood I received wasn't tainted. 98.9% sure, but definitely not 100%.
I've tested negative in follow up blood tests over the years, but the incubation period for the virus is something that concerns me.

I strongly believe that every African American woman should protect her health by getting tested. This if-I-don't-know-it-can't-be-true line of thought is not conducive to a fulfilling life. Of course, one could say that if they don't use IV drugs and/or they sleep with only one man who isn't bi or an IV drug user, then it's OK to have unprotected sex. That's also dangerous thinking.

I don't engage in any high risk behaviors for a lot of reasons that are inappropriate to discuss right now. But I know that I can't take anything for granted with my history of blood transfusions. I prefer to continue to be tested until my doctor tells me, all right, you're past all possible incubation periods for the virus.

And even then, I maintain that for me, abstinence is the safest road. It's probably easier for me because I'm middle aged, and not very anxious to be in a relationship. But if abstinence isn't an option, protection at ALL TIMES is absolutely necessary!
April said…
I'm ashamed that I had no idea it was HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Thank you for this informative post!
Anonymous said…
Los Angelista,
Were you also, like myself, both greatly saddened but inspired, all at the same time by Gina’s story?
I am also deeply impressed by your compassionate, yet very honest presentation of this. The tragedy. The personal pain. Even your willingness to use the word “promiscuity” and Gina’s honest comments about how our own choices do matter.
And how what she’s done with her situation is a great personal triumph. Does she even know what a truly marvelous woman she must be? As I read about the ten women willing to share one “man” (can we use that term here?), the poor self image and lack of personal worth, Los Angelista, I just want to go in the bathroom and have a big “un-manly” cry; for their pain. And for how untrue their own perception of themselves really is. Gina is beautiful. And powerful. And wonderful. Does she realize that? Can other women like her do the same?
And how do we just allow living situations that result in all 6 of her pre-chosen pallbearers to be MURDERED?! Los Angelista, do I be sick or ashamed first, I can’t decide.

PS. Los Angelista, did you also think in your mind, of the contrast between what Gina has done (and continues to do) verse all the ed-ja-mu-cated folks you blogged about from the SOTBU?
Jameil said…
fab post, liz. at hampton each year for national AIDS day in dec., NPHC brought in speakers and none of them looked like the cliche' of dying AIDS patients you see on television. it was an eye-opening experience for people who had never known they knew someone with AIDS.
Anonymous said…
well done. very well done. thank you.
Liz Dwyer said…
Angela,
Gosh, that's really scary for you. The incubation period thing is something that I think is not discussed often enough. I tend to believe that just because someone has a negative test on Monday, that doesn't mean they'll have one on Friday, but maybe I need to know more about all that.

April,
I didn't see a whole lot of info online about it, which is too bad. Really, I hope the conversation goes beyond special days, you know?

Daniel,
I feel a LOT of compassion for her as well as a great responsibility to be so respectful of someone who is putting themselves out there for the benefit of others. You KNOW I thought that about the SOTBU folks. Absolutely did. The intellectual discourse has it's place, but if the words aren't being put into action and folks are just focusing on how smart they sound, that does nobody any good. Because while folks are busy sounding good, what Gina's seen play out in her community happens in neighborhoods across the country every day. It breaks my heart. Really, it does.

Jameil,
That is great that NPHC brought in real folks. I really see the importance of people realizing that their OWN face can be the face of HIV, not just someone else's.

Pooneh,
No, thank you for caring. :)
the last noel said…
Thanks for this post! I helped coordinate an event in Long Beach. It was most inspiring.
Liz Dwyer said…
Noel,
I thought of you and the work you do while I was talking to her and writing this. Gosh, what you do is so incredibly important.

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