January 21, 2011

January 21, 2011
Southern Discomfort Part 3

Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Friday and we have almost made it to the weekend. I hope you have been having a safe and great week.

For the past couple of days, I have been blogging about HIV and AIDS care in the South. Today will conclude this blog. If you have not read the blogs for the past two days, you should start with the blog for January 19th.

There is religiously driven stigma,” says Webb of A Brave New Day. “[As a result,] across the board people are not getting tested [for HIV].” They are also not getting educated about the virus. Webb says churches are eager to do HIV/AIDS outreach in Africa, but they are unwilling to broach the topic at home.

The lack of participation by many religious groups, especially black churches, in the fight against AIDS is a source of frustration for Ruby Gray, a social worker for the past two years with GA Carmichael Family Health Center in Canton, Mississippi, who has worked in HIV prevention services for more than 20 years.

Despite the fact that through 2008, 70 percent of the AIDS diagnoses in Mississippi occurred in the black community, Gray says black churches often don’t want to even acknowledge the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the South. “It is like everyone’s turning their heads and it is not happening but it is happening."

She says much of the unwillingness on the part of black churches to get involved in HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment is based on the connection between the disease and people’s sexual orientation. “The stigma is tied to the idea of MSMs,” says Gray, referring to men who have sex with men.

In the United States, HIV is too connected to gay people, sex workers and drug users, Webb says. It is easier for people in the South to think about helping heterosexual people in Africa with the disease.

Gray spent five years trying to convince her church pastor to incorporate some mention of HIV into his sermons and to have someone come in to speak. He finally said yes and she says since then she hasn’t had any further problems getting HIV/AIDS messaging and materials into her church.

Davis in Greenville also knows how difficult it can be to get black churches to talk about HIV/AIDS. She does peer to peer outreach, speaking at churches and schools about HIV when they will let her in the door, which is not often.

“Churches do not want to participate,” she says. Davis recalls once being invited by a congregant to speak at a nondenominational church in the area, only to show up and have the pastor, who had approved the presentation, tell her there was not time in the service for her talk.

Her beliefs about homosexuality and her feelings about how she became HIV positive show that, like many women in similar situations, Davis herself is not free from either stigma or discrimination.

Davis believes being gay is a choice and she says she contracted HIV from a boyfriend who, unknown to her, also had sex with men.

“If a person wants to be gay, then be gay,” she says. “You get caught up in it, and it is a hard habit to break like cigarettes or drug addiction.” To underscore her point, Davis recounts the years she has spent, to no avail, trying to quit her own smoking habit.

She says of herself and other women who became HIV positive the way she did, “We did not have a choice, because we did o’t know.” She has made it her mission to change that for other Southern women and men. Though her views on MSM are controversial (and may harm many MSM), the fact is she is trying, in her own way, to move beyond issues of sexual orientation to help save lives it is a step more should take.

By doing so, she is a role model who shows that we do not have to support or agree with people (whether on sexual orientation, HIV and immigration status or religious and political beliefs) to fight for their right to stay healthy. Even if that means we have to talk about sex and sexual orientation. In schools. In churches. At home.

Hiers agrees and suggests much of the solution to this nasty matrix of hard to overcome barriers rests on the shoulders of people living with HIV/AIDS who themselves demand heightened awareness, better education and improved access to care and services despite stigma and discrimination.

Indeed, Hiers, Farfan and the two Davises are exemplary models of the kind of positive change that can happen, even in the most challenging of environments, when people with HIV and their advocates take matters into their own hands. Even if they have to use a candy bar every now and then to sugarcoat the bittersweet truth.

Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.

big bear hug,

Daddy Dab