As a country, the fight against HIV has had more to celebrate and less to grieve in the last 20 to 30 years.
There’ve been so many medical advances in anti-HIV medications, many wonder if HIV awareness is nearly as important as it used to be.
However, as the community with the largest population of HIV cases in the state of North Carolina – it’s clear that there’s much work to be done for the city of Charlotte.
That’s what led me to AIDS Walk Charlotte. It’s is the largest HIV awareness and fundraising event in the Carolinas and serves a visual representation of our community’s’ commitment to HIV and AIDS. At 8 a.m. on an oddly chilly Saturday, hundreds of brave individuals walked two miles through the heart of Uptown in celebration of the past, present, and in hopes for an HIV-free future.
The event is presented annually by the local chapter of RAIN, an organization committed to addressing the challenges presented by HIV/AIDS through education and advocacy. They work tirelessly to promote a greater understanding of HIV and its effects on all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. This year the walk totaled an impressive $154,200 raised in donations from various community outlets.
I made the personal decision to attend the walk long before I made any commitment for work. Although my Myers Park Baptist Church team raised an impressive $7,100 in donations, I couldn’t help but notice a vague sense of poverty that echoed amongst the crowd while hearing stories of lives lost to the battle with HIV/AIDS that has plagued many families for decades.
Don’t get me wrong, the morale was still exceptionally high. From impromptu waves of friends doing The Wobble (as directed by DJ Little Betty, herself) to intimate conversations on how we can move forward with Mayor Jennifer Roberts, there was inclusion and support and love on every corner.
However, for every AIDS story told publicly, there are still hundreds that continue to be met with resistance and an emotional trauma some can’t escape.
“I lost my nephew to AIDS in the 80s back when you didn’t speak about it,” one Charlotte walk participant said. “We didn’t know much about it, so we couldn’t do much about it. Now, I’m trying to change all of that.”
Conversations with both older and younger community members proved that the only common denominator for those living with HIV/AIDS is simply being human. It’s not categorized by gender, age, sexual orientation, race, class, political affiliation, income, creed, or esoteric interest.
It’s also no longer a taboo conversation that we should “talk about some other time.” It’s become everyone’s conversation.
Along the walking route, I appreciated that signs that helped dispel the fault and embrace the truth. Living with HIV/AIDS is staggering pill to swallow, but I’m proud that the Charlotte community doesn’t believe in collateral damage. Love liberates; miseducation restricts.
In 2015, the CDC reported the rates of new HIV cases had dropped nearly 19% between 2005 and 2014. Though impressive, this news paints a gestalt perception that doesn’t analyze its constituents.
Particularly when it comes to race. The intersection of race and AIDS is no new paradigm. In fact, racism itself has always been a public health issue, and this isn’t just my lofty opinion. Facts support that historically, black men have had much lower rates of health insurance coverage, and when the coverage was available, the role that implicit bias plays in some parts of the health care delivery system has resulted in poorer health outcomes for people of color altogether.
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that nearly 30% of black gay and bisexual men said that they had encountered racist or homophobic behavior in healthcare settings. As a result, they were much less likely to seek out preventive care, such as HIV testing and treatment, in a timely manner.
The statistics are chilling, but that’s why these walks and other RAIN community programs will always be necessary. Not only do they offer a celebratory space for sharing light and love, but they do it with cultural sensitivity and informative dialogue which are both critical to lowering the rates of HIV in the Charlotte community.
It takes a truly open heart to carefully share the narrative of his neighbor’s sorrow. There was nothing artificial about Saturday morning’s walk. If nothing more, it offered people the opportunity to exhale knowing that although there’s much work to be done with the fight against HIV/AIDS, it’s not a fight anyone has to do alone.
Photos by Jerele Aurelius