It’s almost been thirty years since the first case of HIV was diagnosed in the early 80s―and a lot has changed since those early days. Once unfairly labeled the “white gay man’s disease,” the face of AIDS in America has morphed into a predominately African-American disease, straight and gay.
And yes, the stats are daunting: African Americans, who make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, now make up more than 49 percent of new infections and nearly 40 percent of all HIV/AIDS deaths in the U.S. Also, if African Americans in the United States constituted their own country, that country would rank 21 in the world among those with the highest number of individuals living with HIV.
But that doesn’t mean to give up hope.
To commemorate this day, black media is raising awareness around the pandemic. Here’s a look at some of those stories:
Original Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph opens up to AOL Black Voices about seeing many of her friends die in the early 80s when she was on Broadway:
And in the middle of those good times came the worst. The worst was when men, gay men up and down Broadway just started dropping dead of a mystery disease. They died one right after the other. Friends and cast members just got sick and died. They were sick today and dead tomorrow. They got sick, some of them developed those strange purple marks and they died. There was no dying process like the one we have become accustomed to nowadays. No "cocktail" mixture of pills to ward off one infectious disease or the other. They just got sick and they died.
Then the deadly silence would set in because nobody wanted to talk about it, much less do anything about that disease -- that shhhhh -- gay disease. The silence was deafening! Death and silence seemed to go hand in hand and silently that mysterious disease, AIDS, blew out the flame of life on Broadway like candles on a birthday cake, funeral after funeral, memorial after memorial. It got to the point where I couldn't cross one more name out of my address book.
Ralph wants people to understand that this disease affects everyone and it angers her that many people still remain unaware about the virus:
After all these years I am shocked as to how little people know or want to know about HIV/AIDS. How people don't know that HIV/AIDS killed more than 3,000,000 last year, and every year, it kills more people than it did the year before. People still want to believe that AIDS a "gay" disease absolutely refusing to acknowledge the fact that the new number one way to transmit HIV is unprotected heterosexual sex. That's right, male to female sex. And I could go on with facts that would make you say "What the ?!"
The Grio published an opinion piece written by HIV-positive writer, Willis Edwards. Edwards writes about the importance of getting tested and the community getting over their myths about HIV.
And still I rise, morning after morning to the blaring bedside alarm, only to find myself desiring a few more minutes of peace. Some days I hit snooze. I pull the comforter over my head because I am not done with sleep just yet. Usually I get up, thankful to God for the first moment of a new day and eager to go out and change the world. The truth is that my morning rituals have changed little since I was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s. I still prefer less work, more money, good company and exciting weekends. I still love the life that I have, the friends who have been with me through thick and thin, and the family that has loved me no matter who I was or what I did. The truth is that I still rise to live a life that is pleasing to God and fulfilling for myself. Oddly enough, I sometimes forget that this virus has changed my life.
At times I ignore my mortality (the same mortality we all face as human beings) and live life in an unassuming way. However, there are those days when getting out of bed is physically impossible and I know it is not just because I am tired or went to bed too late. It is in those moments that I find myself at a place of understanding about the choices I made in life and the choices that could end my life prematurely. In spite of this, I am happy to be in the land of the living; I am happy that I got tested. More than anything, I am relieved that I know my status.
For all the misconceptions about getting tested, one common area of confusion must be cleared up. Getting tested for HIV is not inviting your own death. Despite all we have learned over 25 years of living with and dying from this disease, many people still equate having HIV with images of frail, emaciated, and sickly people. Yet an HIV test does not determine whether or not a person has AIDS. When someone gets tested for HIV, he or she is not being tested for the AIDS virus at all, but instead for the presence of antibodies to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Antibodies mean that your body is fighting for you. Since the test detects these antibodies, which are produced by the immune system to defend itself against HIV, the test is called the HIV antibody test, instead of the AIDS test. A positive HIV result is not a diagnosis of AIDS. It does identify the presence of an HIV infection, and that the infected person should seek medical evaluation and treatment immediately. Early treatment can help ensure a better and prolonged health. African-Americans often get diagnosed with HIV when the virus has advanced to an AIDS diagnosis.
While many people in our community or either living with HIV or have and/or lost a loved one to the disease, too many remain silent about it. Kai Wright, senior writer at The Root is asking people to be brave and share their stories of how HIV has impacted their lives:
We’ve heard it time and again. Silence equals death. It was true in the 1980s, and it’s true now. The shame and stigma surrounding this disease not only facilitates its spread, it keeps people from taking control , getting into treatment and living the sort of physically and emotionally healthy lives that make HIV infection manageable rather than deadly. Stigma is one part of a complicated epidemic for which the solution is simple: Those who aren’t afraid to talk about HIV in a personal way should lead by example.
This is not a chance to sound off; save the judgments and declamations for another article. Instead, testify about your own experience. Tell a story about how HIV has affected you. Any story. Maybe it’s about a time you were tested, regardless of the outcome. Maybe it’s about someone you have lost. Maybe it’s about how you have lived and thrived with an HIV diagnosis. It can be about anything, just keep it about you.
To find out what WAD events are happening in your area, go to wordaidsday.org.