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By Tara Cavanaugh and Zach Childree
Dressed head to toe in a bright red pantsuit, Debbie Dingell looked like a walking AIDS ribbon at Sunday’s AIDS Walk in downtown Ann Arbor.
“My best friend was diagnosed 30 years ago when nobody would even say the words, and she’s alive and she’s kicking and she’s doing great,” the petite wife of Congressman John Dingell told the crowd of yellow AIDS Walk t-shirts.
“I think it’s so great they’re here,” she said, pointing to a group of Eastern Michigan University students. “Young people are the fastest growing group (diagnosed with HIV). People don’t talk about it, they don’t know about it, and your being here helps raise awareness.”
The event in Ann Arbor was part of the annual AIDS Walk Michigan last weekend. Participants also raised money and walked in Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Traverse City, Jackson and on Central Michigan University’s campus. The annual fundraiser helps more than two dozen HIV/AIDS organizations in the state raise money for prevention and treatment programs.
According to preliminary results, the walks made roughly $103,137, thanks to fundraising efforts of the 2,186 attendees, said Barb Murray, executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan, the agency that organizes the walks.
Marquis Taylor from Jackson was one of the 2,186 attendees – he even attended two walks.
“I was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 2006,” Taylor said, who participated in Ann Arbor on Sunday and in Jackson on Saturday. He was joined by his partner and two friends from PFLAG Jackson. “We’re out here for me, and others like me,” he said.
While the message of the weekend was somber, attendees were also out to have fun. In Ann Arbor, walkers warmed up by dancing to the disco song “Le Freak” before Dingell kicked off the walk by cutting red tape with a pair of giant red scissors.
In Detroit, the walk almost felt like a parade: after a prayer, a conductor struck up the Cass Tech marching band led the walkers out of Palmer Park.
Margo Love lost her daughter to AIDS in 2008 and walked this year for the first time. “I’m just finally getting up the courage to step out and do something,” Love said.
“People have to understand with this disease, you don’t have to be afraid,” she added. “I have a grandson who is negative because my daughter did the right thing. There are medicines you can take. Women can get pregnant.”
Love said people need to be more willing to talk about the disease with people they know. “Let people know that it’s ordinary people with HIV, it’s your neighbors and it’s people you work with,” she said. “You have to clear up the ignorance.”
Kristina Schmidgall, a social worker at APM, said there still is a lot of ignorance surrounding HIV. “HIV still has the stigma of being a gay disease,” Schmidgall said. “Because of that stigma, it’s not talked about, so people say ‘oh it can’t happen to me because I’m not gay.’ We’re finding that HIV is affecting individuals of color; specifically women and young people.”
Schmidgall said she enjoyed the parade-like walk because it made activism feel fun. “It adds an element that it’s not so serious,” she said. “I mean it is serious work, but with this we can have some fun, raise some money and raise awareness, have a cup of coffee and a bagel before and say come on out with your loved ones, bring your pets and bring your children.”