March 7, 2016
by Tranisha Arzah, PWN-USA Board Member
I am grateful that I received another scholarship to attend AIDSWatch in 2016. My first time to ever lobby on Capitol Hill was in 2015. I have experiences lobbying but in a much smaller capacity at my state capital in Olympia, WA.
AIDSWatch is the nation’s largest annual constituent-based national HIV/AIDS advocacy event that brought over 350 people this year from 36 states in the US. Last year, I was extremely nervous and not sure of myself in my ability to speak clearly to my state representatives. Yes, I am a person living with HIV and I know my experiences better than anymore else, but it was scary to feel like we had to convince these people in power why these issues are important to be looked at. They had power to change things, and of course I didn’t want to screw that up.
I found out that it wasn’t like that at all, at least not for my state. It was more about updating and making sure HIV/AIDS is still on the map, because a lot of things are changing, but some is still the same, like the stigma that people face. Luckily for my state, we’ve continually had members in Congress support and advocate for people living with HIV (PLHIV). This doesn’t mean we can’t improve in areas, especially in areas outside of King County, which is the largest area of people living with HIV/AIDS in Washington. In rural areas, like in the Tri Cities, it looks like a completely different story. Education and access to care, or even things one might take for granted, like condoms to prevent unsafe sex, are so minimal it’s frightening. As a state that had been part of Medicaid expansion and having an overall progressive view on HIV/AIDS, we unfortunately still have people living with HIV/AIDS not being cared for. Many still don’t know their status or even bother to educate themselves because they believe it’s a thing of the past. This is not acceptable.
This year I felt really comfortable about bringing up our issues that AIDS United put together for us. I had a lot more confidence in myself. My top three issues are Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Stable Housing and HIV Decriminalization, but I mainly talked about the Comprehensive Education to the staff. Everyone, even our one new Republican member, was on board with supporting these issues and the others we had. It’s a great feeling to have people support you and your community!
Comprehensive sexuality education is a tool that all of our youth deserve to learn and have access to. In 2007, the Washington State legislature passed the Healthy Youth Act (HYA), which went into effect September 1, 2008. This state law requires public school districts that are providing sexual health instruction to ensure that the curriculum is comprehensive and medically accurate. Abstinence-only education is no longer compliant under the new state law. Unfortunately, the Healthy Youth Act does not include a mechanism to hold school districts accountable for updating their curriculum. It’s up to organizations, schools, parents and our state to push mandatory comprehensive sexuality education throughout Washington. As someone who was a teen living with HIV, this issue brings up so much personally, because its 100% preventable. I don’t wish anyone–but no especially young person–to have to struggle with their new reality that they contracted HIV on top of everything else.
For someone who may be thinking of applying next year for the first time, my advice to you is take that leap and always ask those questions that pop up. I was feeling really uncertain my first year because I didn’t want to come across as a newbie, even though I was, yet that didn’t matter. My PWN sisters always reminded me that they don’t leave a sister behind. It’s so true–they always had my back! It can be a very overwhelming process at first, especially if you’ve never been in a room filled with hundreds of people from all of over the country who are openly living with HIV/AIDS. It’s an incredible and empowering feeling to witness and be a part of. If you feel like you have something to say or you want to make sure something happens in your state, then AIDSWatch is your opportunity.