Reminder: World Aids Day is December 1st
by Jessica Krebs
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words HIV or AIDS? What is the first feeling you get? Most people have misconceptions of HIV/AIDS and those it affects, thinking that it, for example, only affects gay men or drug users who share needles. Often, those living with HIV/AIDS face extreme stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes that are damaging and incorrect. However, it is important to recognize the myriad structures at play when it comes to the spread of HIV and who is most at risk. There is such a wide variety factors as to why anyone may contract HIV, and it is important to always remember that those living with HIV/AIDS are human beings. We must continually advocate for the individual health and well-being of all people regardless of their HIV status, and not perpetuate the cycle of stigma and discrimination that oppresses and marginalize those living with HIV.
Just as a quick reminder, let’s go over the basics, such as what HIV/AIDS is and how it is transmitted. HIV is a virus that weakens the body’s immune system by attacking the white blood cells that are used to help the body fight disease. HIV eventually causes AIDS, otherwise known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids Meds, 2011). HIV is transmitted from person to person through blood, semen, and other bodily fluids, and can occur in several ways. This includes during sexual contact without a condom with someone who is infected; sharing needles or syringes with someone who is infected; mother-to-child transmission; donated blood that is infected; and transmission is health care settings. HIV cannot be transmitted by day-to-day activities such as hugging, shaking hands, or sharing food. Each story that a person has to share about how they contracted HIV is personal and on an individual basis; it is important to never place blame or judgment on someone, because each situation is different, and in the end we are all simply human beings. What is vital, however, is that communities put support structures in place in order to minimize risk and increase access to education and resources.
HIV/AIDS does not occur in a vacuum; it disproportionately affects marginalized populations, such as the LGBT community and people of color. In Kent County alone, there are an estimated 1,080 people living with HIV, and nearly 1 in 5 people living with HIV are unaware they are infected (Grand Rapids Red Project (GRRP), 2012). According to the Center for Disease Control, the racial/ethnic group in the United States most affected by HIV are African Americans (2013). In 2011, it was noted that “while African Americans accounted for only 9% of the population in Kent County, they accounted for 34% of all HIV/AIDS cases” (GRRP), 2012). This is especially true for women of color, who are even more disproportionately affected by the virus, and who face unique challenges or lack availability to the vital resources they need in order to reduce their risk. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009, HIV was the “leading cause of death and disease among women ages 15-44” (2011). For women of color worldwide, such challenges can include minimal access to health care, educational opportunities, and adequate housing. For these reasons, we know that women of color are at an increased risk of contracting HIV due largely in part to structural patterns used as the vehicle for the AIDS epidemic, rather than race, which is a common stereotype.
We live in a patriarchal society that encourages traditional gender roles, including when it comes to controlling our sexualities and sex lives. This is true in many nations globally, not just here in the United States. Women are taught to be quiet and passive from a young age, and this continues throughout adulthood into making personal decisions regarding autonomy and sexual health. The narrowly defined roles that women are expected to ascribe to include dynamics in sex work and in one’s personal sex life, such as being pressured into not using condoms (even when in relationships). Education, socio-economic status, gender roles, violence against women, and societal norms all play a huge role in the fact that women of color account for such high rates of HIV (WHO, 2013). Additionally, for these reasons, we can also conclude that race itself is not the cause of such high rates of HIV for people of color, but rather societal and cultural structures and inequalities.
Here in Grand Rapids, we are fortunate enough to have a growing support system that reaches out to our community with the education and tools we need to reduce the risk of HIV in safe spaces free from judgment. The Red Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a non-profit organization that “believes everyone should have access to knowledge and tools available to prevent HIV infection, and the treatment necessary to live with it, no matter who they are or where they are” (GRRP). They provide many educational programs and events in the community to improve health, prevent HIV, and reduce risk, including their Clean Works Program, Bar & Community Outreach Programs, and support groups. Red Project has also distributed over 62,000 free condoms since its inception.
Most recently, a support group called Sisters with Status was established to provide support and education for adult women living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. I spoke with Elizabeth Josey, Red Project’s Program Assistant, who worked diligently to help create this support group. “In the last year, Red Project sought to determine how the organization could better serve the unmet needs of women in our community who are living with or affected by HIV, through both needs assessments and a focus group,” Josey explained. “The outcome of this led to culminating a support group for women living with HIV in order to allow a safe space for women to share and gain support from one another.”
This amazing organization fully strives to provide education, awareness, and access to the resources we need to be a thriving, vibrant community. The Grand Rapids Chapter of the National Organization for Women gives their full support to this cause, believing as the Red Project does that any person, regardless of their background or history, are entitled to live healthy lives armed with the tools they need to reduce their risk of infection. NOW is dedicated to supporting all women socially, politically, legally and economically, and this includes women’s health and well-being. When women are educated, healthy, and have access to the tools they need to succeed, not only do women thrive, but entire communities also thrive. As we know, the reasons for the spread of HIV are multiple, complex, and structural. My hope is that this article provided insight into who is affected by HIV and helped to decrease, even slightly, any stigma or stereotypes against the HIV-positive community using facts and debunking the myths that only “certain types” of people can acquire HIV. We know this isn’t true, and the stigma must end. These people are individual human beings, as well as our mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles; friends and peers.
World AIDS Day 2013 is this upcoming Sunday, December 1st. World-wide, people will be honoring and remembering those who are living with, affected by, or who have passed from HIV/AIDS. Please join NOW GR with the Grand Rapids Red Project for a World AIDS Day 2013 community event! Starting at 6pm, this free event will begin with a candlelight vigil and walk beginning in Rosa Parks Circle and ending at Fountain Street Church, where there will be a Memorial Celebration honoring those we love and have lost to the AIDS epidemic. The after-party at Rumors Bar* will end the evening with a drag show and confidential, free HIV testing offered by the Grand Rapids Red Project. Come out to support your community this Sunday.
If you are unable to attend or would like to learn more, Grand Valley State University’s LGBT Resource Center, Women’s Center, and Office of Multicultural Affairs is hosting another event on Monday, December 2nd for World AIDS Day.
There will be a film showing and panel discussion for “Endgame: AIDS in Black America”, as well as free and confidential HIV testing by the Red Project. The event begins at 4:30pm and is located in 2204 Kirkhof Center in Allendale.
*Rumors will be charging a cover fee for their establishment and you must be 21 years of age to attend.
For more information on the Red Project, including their programs, events, resources, and support groups, please visit www.redproject.org.
Aids Meds. 2011. “What is AIDS and HIV?”
Center for Disease Control. 2013. “HIV Among African Americans.”
Grand Rapids Red Project (GRRP). 2012. “Red Project.”
World Health Organization. 2013. “Gender Inequalities and HIV.”