The day way back in 1985 that I walked into the Berkeley Free Clinic, located in the bottom of the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, to check out what taking a test for HIV was about, I was really hoping for a free cup of tea and maybe a couple of cookies. Homeless, and for the most part alone, I was really just killing time. No big deal I thought. Just curious. It was something to do. I had heard stories about gay men in San Francisco dying from some mysterious disease none of the doctors could seem to fix. A mother who once was a nurse, I was going to tell some of my male buddies with bad habits what taking the test was like, so maybe they would check it out and live. I loved my little band of friends probably more than I loved myself.
A very young woman who actually seemed more nervous and afraid than I was drew some blood from a vein, said a few words, and handed me a little slip of paper with a long number on it. It was very important not to lose this number and to come back with it in two weeks.
I was so proud of myself for not losing this number and keeping my appointment (no small feat when you’re homeless). The same small overly polite young lady was there again–this time looking even more tense and afraid. I felt bad for her as she told me my test was positive. And then time stopped. Embarrassment and shame were immediate. She asked if I was OK. Of course I said yes. I took my referral list, determined to get out of the room as quickly as possible.
I really had screwed up this time. I really was going to die. The best I could do was not make a scene, and never, ever tell or disgrace those who had been my friends.
I would not see my beautiful daughter grow up. I would die alone.
Fast forward to 2015. Guess what?? I’m still here!!
It took me many years to creep out of the shadows of HIV shame and discover that I was not the only woman living with HIV. And I do mean LIVING! I did not die, and as I learned more about the physical aspects of the disease, I was also blessed to meet, one by one, women who went beyond the physical to the more complex reasons that this disease exists more pervasively among certain populations than in others. I learned what damage poverty, low self-esteem, lack of information, violence, racism, and cultural stigma can do. I also learned that women together do have a voice in working for change. We can advocate on our own behalf without the dominance of men.
PWN-USA has helped me remember who I really am, and has trained me to present that person to elected officials and the community at large–not as a problem to be dealt with, but as an agent of change.
Please help us continue our work for another year. Every donation helps connect over 3,000 women living with HIV throughout the U.S. and train them to assume leadership roles and shape the policies that affect women living with HIV and their communities, while fighting the stigma that too often stands in the way of prevention and treatment efforts. Your donation will help send women living with HIV, like me, to our national summit planned for September 2016, where we will build leadership skills and learn the latest in policy and communications so that we can be effective advocates for our community.
No donation is too small (or too large!)–but every donation helps us continue our important work.