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by Jessica Carreras
There are over 18,500 people in Michigan living with HIV/AIDS. Last Wednesday, Nov. 18, many of them gathered at the Affirmations LGBT community center in Ferndale to speak to the Obama administration about what the community and those who serve it need from the federal government.
The meeting, unlike many other HIV/AIDS Community Discussions that have been happening throughout the U.S., was not run by White House officials, but instead was brought to southeast Michigan by Campaign to End AIDS, a project of national non-profit Housing Works.
“When we give global money, we require those countries to have a country plan,” explained Christine Campbell of Housing Works, who was there with her colleague Larry Bryant. “We don’t have one. That’s untenable. So we have an opportunity now at the beginning to actually provide input.”
While Bryant filmed and openly gay Detroit City Council President-elect Charles Pugh moderated, community members Ann Arbor, Ferndale, Kalamazoo, Lansing and beyond spoke freely and openly about what they thought the White House should create as the U.S. HIV/AIDS strategy. Topics covered included health disparities, reducing new infections and increasing access to care and services.
Recommendations from the community ran the gamut, and just about every sector of people affected by HIV was present: white, black, gay, straight, men, women, transgender people, older adults, college students, Hispanics, mothers, clergy, politicians and several social workers.
Dwayne Bridges of the Michigan AIDS Coalition program Young Brothers United spoke of the need for more mentors and more education for high-risk youth. “It’s a shame that our schools in metro Detroit are still giving out old textbooks,” he commented. “How can we really be confident that they are receiving the most updated information?”
“They’re not,” Pugh replied.
Other presenters echoed the same need for increased education and prevention efforts, including access for women, impoverished people and people of color.
Lisa Tate Murphy, an HIV positive woman from Ann Arbor, discussed what she believes the federal government’s role should be in eradicating the shame and negativity surrounding HIV/AIDS. “What I’d like to see now is a White House that talks about HIV and AIDS and releases some of the stigma,” she said. “I think a lot what causes infections is stigma, what keeps people from getting tested is stigma, what keeps people from getting health care is around stigma.”
Tate Murphy suggested that the White House could help erase it by simply talking openly about the disease and “normalizing” it, and by encouraging society to treat HIV-positive people with respect.
That respect, others echoed, should continue in churches and in doctor’s offices, where all employees – from the doctor to the receptionist – should be educated and sensitive to the needs of HIV-positive patients.
Several attendees got fired up at the Wednesday night’s meeting, encouraging those in the community to demand that their voices be heard and not sit complacently, waiting for services and funds to come to them.
“I want you to come together as a community and I want you to talk,” said Pat Clark, a prevention specialist at Community AIDS Resource and Education Services of southwest Michigan. “I want you to yell. I want you to be heard. … I want us to get pissed and I want us to be strong and I want us to not accept this. I don’t like being treated this way. I don’t like not being heard. I don’t like having to fight for money.”
James Curry, a pastor with the Alpha and Omega Spiritual Church of Christ in Detroit and chair of the HIV/AIDS Planning Counsel responsible for dispersing Ryan White funds in Detroit and beyond, built on her enthusiasm.
Curry, along with many other speakers, addressed the need to make applying for funds and accessing care easier for non-profit AIDS organizations and people living with HIV/AIDS.
But the burden of asking for more money, more services and more response, he added, rests with those who care about the epidemic. “It is up to you as individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS to step up to the plate,” he said. “I’m a person living with AIDS. I have been living with it since 1987…. And I was part of that religious community sending those people to hell. You have to be careful, because you never know what kind of experience is gonna knock on your door.”