Today's letter is inspired by my friend and fellow blogger Joe, who wrote this inspiring (and upsetting) piece for The Body, a site dedicated to HIV/AIDS research, awareness and education.
Also,World AIDS Day is coming up on December 1st, so look for events in your area, or consider donating to a HIV-related cause.
Dear Mr. President,
I'd never met anyone that I knew to be HIV+ before I moved to Boise. My gender studies class required a service component, and I was assigned a volunteer project working with an HIV/AIDS awareness group to organize a World AIDS Day rally. (Specifically, we were asked to coordinate support from the local religious community, an effort that went about as well as you'd imagine in most of the ultra-conservative Idahoan churches.) My classmate and I made phone calls, gave presentations to religious groups, and, on December 1st, stood outside in a park with a local youth group, passing out candles and hot chocolate to a small crowd. We stood together, men and women, young and old, many races, gay, straight, HIV+, HIV-, Christian, Muslim, and Atheist. We listened to the stories of those who had been affected by HIV and we listened to those who confessed their shame at their own ignorance about it. We wore red ribbons. We remembered the dead. We prayed and we cried and we observed in silence.
When I moved to DC, HIV/AIDS was so prevalent and awareness campaigns so widespread that discussion caused considerably less controversy. Perhaps this was because DC is more progressive, or simply because it is more difficult to dismiss a disease as the sole property of an ostracized community when it affects your neighbors, your friends, your family and a staggering number of those you pass on the street every day. That my own life was not directly affected allowed me the luxury of forgetting that attitudes across the country are not so enlightened. That many still think of AIDS as either foreign or self-inflicted. That many still refuse to educate themselves about the stark reality. Years later, when my boyfriend's mother (herself a former nurse) warned her son away from me, claiming my tattooed skin put him at risk for AIDS, I was reminded that this lack of basic understanding was just as widespread in Seattle as it had been in Boise.
Ultimately I am lucky that I've only had one person treat me the way that people with HIV/AIDS are treated all the time. For all of my attempts to laugh off her ignorant remarks, I felt frustrated and angry that she would cite the mere risk of this disease as a reason for her son to stay away from me. But I didn't have to live with that feeling for more than a few days; I didn't have to live with that feeling while also balancing a fear for my own life and the frustration of my own failing health. I can't begin to imagine what that would feel like. Like most Americans, I don't think about it that often.
Today I was reminded by a particularly eloquent essay that many are not so lucky. Especially among GLBTQ youth and communities of color, even the search for a cure can come hand in hand with the worst racist, classist and homophobic practices of our history. HIV/AIDS awareness, education and research is important to all of us, even if its direct effect on our lives isn't obvious.