HIV AIDS Stigma and education

Positive Champions Speakers Bureau, more than just a name.

National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day – NGMHAAD – was September 27, three months to the day after National HIV Testing Day, and hard on the heels of July’s landmark International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington, D.C. The Positive Champions Speakers Bureau considers each and every day HIV/AIDS awareness days. Our focus is on continued efforts for testing, education and ending the fear and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.  One of the main reasons I decided to start the bureau is because I see fear and stigma within our community was running rampant, not only with people who don’t have HIV, but with the Gay community I am supposed to be a part of.  They are afraid, and I get that. They want me to somehow be different from them so that they can feel safe, I get that.  But that does not make it any easier for me to deal with. That does not make their real fear go away. It just masks it until they can come to terms with whatever it is that is making them fearful in the first place. Is it their own behavior that has them scared? Is it their lack of understanding that has them fearful of what they possibly can contract? These are not questions I can answer. The only answers I can come up with are how I handle each and every one of those different scenarios, and how I let it affect ME!

The Gay community has always had divisions and different levels of acceptance for one another. Some gay people come out and think they will finally be accepted for who they are and how they are perceived in the world. No matter what their HIV status is.  What I have found is that in some communities of gay people, that is not always the case. I see in some communities and overt stigma directed at the HIV positive individual, no matter if it is coming from fear, or if it is coming from a place of judgement. Some of the judgments can range from the mere fact that an individual has been ill and has been forced to apply for some type of financial help to make it through life. Like this is what the HIV positive individual “WANTED” in their life. Really? Does anyone really think that way? Yes! It is absolutely absurd to think that I would contract HIV just to receive a check and spend my days at the beach. Number one, living with the virus does not mean that I can do anything that I particularly want to do at any given moment. I have to plan my events to fit my health. Number two, living on a disability check can be very difficult and limiting on what you can afford to do and what you can’t.  Yes there are some people that exploit the system as with any other health system out there. But the majority are doing their best with what they have to survive with. This type of thought process just fuels stigma even more so and cause great division within our own community!

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Being involved with the HIV community for so many years, I have seen first hand what the consequences of stigma can be. Many positive people tend to numb their pains and feelings with substances creating a much greater tendency for addictions, mental disorders and sometimes even suicide. You can understand the reasons why someone would turn to these types of ways of dealing with their feelings of being unwanted, unattractive, not worthy or having nothing to offer another. This type of behavior though can lead to even further isolation, great despair and in some cases even put them further at risk of spreading the disease by making poor choices while utilizing these chemicals to address their real feelings.

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The Positive Champions Speakers Bureau is a group of dedicated individuals just like you and me. Their sole purpose is to heighten community awareness and increase compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS. Positive Champion speakers provide their personal stories about living with HIV and provide answers on the disease. Please note they are not medical professionals and are not expected to provide highly technical information. The Positive Champions give presentations to schools, health care professionals, businesses, civic organizations, detention facilities and many other groups looking to bring more understanding to HIV/AIDS and put an end to the fear and stigma that surrounds the disease. The Positive Champions presentations are designed to educate the community about HIV/AIDS and tailored to fit the specific needs of each audience. If you’ve been diagnosed with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or know someone who has, the need for support and compassion couldn’t be greater. Too often HIV-positive people become targets of AIDS discrimination. On top of handling new health challenges, they sometimes face rejection by family and friends. They may be forced out of homes, lose their jobs or even become victims of violence. So often in today’s society when we speak about HIV, we speak in terms of statistics and forget the faces that make up the epidemic. Having someone share their story engages the audience and teaches us that behind the millions of people living with the disease worldwide, every individual offers a unique story that defies stereotypes, transcends categorization, and reminds us that we are all human.

It was 1985; I had just taken the test for the HIV virus. I was not in a place to understand the implications of the test. I was in a drug treatment facility, and it was difficult to even imagine that he needed to deal with something besides recovering from his drug addiction.

I took the test, and a few days later they called me back in and said the test was not conclusive and required another one. After the second test I discovered I was HIV positive. I told no one. Before long I was leaving the treatment facility and heading out to finish out my life in private isolation.

I moved to my parent’s home for a while, and went to Key West. I was gay and figured where better to be than where homosexuality and HIV were widely accepted. I went there with little money and lived off of mustard sandwiches. Finally, I got a job at a restaurant.  When I started making good money, he ended up back on cocaine and heroin.

I was fired from the restaurant because of performance issues and absenteeism. With no money coming in, and my drug addiction escalating, I ended up  living in my car. After a short while the car was towed, and I ended up with no place to stay what so ever.

After about 3 months, I became very sick and ended up in the hospital with PCP pneumonia. I was in the hospital for about 4 weeks, and very near death. That’s when I met someone that had ventured down the same path. My new friend offered me a place to stay and guidance in the right direction. They gave me support and guidance, and helped me find a job.

My life was finally starting to take a positive turn. I had a spiritual connection, was sober, and had a basic support system in place. My support system offered him an affordable place of his OWN to stay in. All my new friend asked in return was for me pay it forward.

For the past 27 years, this has been his mission. I have seen too many people not make it out of the situation that he was in, and it is my mission to help as many people as possible come out of the depths of addiction and homelessness and take full control of their lives.

I have been involved with the local Ryan White consortium for 7 years. The group has implemented a Consumer Peer program, which directly deals with quality management, adherence and compliance within our area. It helps clients to stay in care and adhere to medications.

I began the Positive Champions Speakers Bureau, for individuals to speak out into the community on the fear and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and the importance of staying in care after testing positive for HIV/AIDS.

Since I began working with Positive Champions, my focus has been on quality improvement for individuals living with the disease. I believe that peers have a definite effect on quality teams, by giving valuable insight to what works and what doesn’t. Retention of patients has been a problem in the Daytona area for quite some time. I cherish the opportunity to help in whatever way I can, and to share and learn new ways of improving HIV/AIDS outreach efforts.

Namaste’

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