Today is World AIDS Day. All day, I have been thinking of the women at the Women's Prison who are HIV positive, and their friends, those I never knew there, who died in the 80's and early 90's, usually alone, in the single cells of an infirmary full of nurse and doctors who, at best, didn't care and, at worst, were full of fear, disgust, even hatred towards all who had the disease.
It's better now, of course, if dying in prison can ever be "better." There is a great inmate-manned Hospice program, and no one dies alone anymore. And now far fewer die there of AIDS related illnesses, because of better meds and state mandated HIV medical protocols. And most nurses and doctors at least understand the illness, which takes some of the fear factor out. Some are still prejudiced and disgusted, though. Some are wonderful.
But, as one inmate told me, "It's a drag to have HIV in general, and worse in prison" because there is still stigma, lack of understanding, and real ignorance in the prison population, and a few correctional officers who can be cruel. [Most C.O.'s are good people, doing a good job, respectful of all inmates who stay out of trouble. HIV is just another illness to them-like diabetes or arthritis.]
Some of the inmates in my groups of positive women got HIV while in prison in the 80's. Back in the day, so my long term or recidivist positive women in would say, there was less vigilance and therefore more drugs in prison. Most of the time there was one underground needle for all those who used in prison. In the morning it would be in one side of the prison, in the afternoon the other side. Nobody knew about AIDS-or considered it a "gay disease"-so they took turns shooting up, passing the virus back and forth and all around. Their stories would make me cry.
Then somebody would remember some funny story about so-and-so who had AIDS, and suddenly the whole group of women-including me-would be roaring with laughter as one would leap up, take on another persona and act out the whole story.
I laughed more in those groups than I did anywhere else in my life. Then I would go back to my office and cry.
Of course, many woman got HIV from their husbands or partners, who used needles, or were on the down low. Some got the virus from working the streets, the only job they knew, to feed their children, or their habits. And in reality, it doesn't matter how anyone-men or women-acquired the virus. It is living with the virus that is important, getting into medical treatment and taking the meds correctly that is important.
I don't want this to turn into me standing on a soapbox, beating my breasts, and whining about the obvious. I came to care about those funny, manipulative, sacred, courageous, angry, frustrated, even dangerous women in my HIV positive groups.
I was also enraged by them, and those who were not (yet) positive. Some were in deep denial that they were at risk, or putting others at risk. A few were just uneducated about HIV, and many didn't know who to ask about the rumors they heard about HIV. Some care and use condoms when off drugs, but not when using. Some don't care at all.
As an HIV counselor, I tested people-inside the prison and out-and have been the one who had to tell people their tests came back positive. In a split second their lives became "before" and "after," a terrible experience for all. I liked the group and educational aspects of my former job better.
The sad thing is that we need a World AIDS Day at all. This is an epidemic that was preventable by the 90's, but our country's leadership, many of our churches, a lot of conservatives and middle-of-the -roaders refused to allocate funds for research (it was a gay disease, who cares?) or allow meaningful education to sully their, and more especially, their children's, ears.
Gee, come to think about it that part hasn't changed much-studies show that abstain only curriculums do not stop epidemics. Now many don't care because large numbers of African American and Hispanic women are turning positive now.
HIV/AIDS is now a World-Wide pandemic, rampant in Russia, China, India, and growing fast in South America. It is the only preventable pandemic, and especially (but not exclusively) in third world countries there is not enough money for life saving medication. And it is a disease of women and children. it makes me sad and angry and frustrated.
The point of this, I guess, is educate yourself, your children, your grandchildren, your neighbors and their children and grandchildren, even complete strangers if you have a chance. Nobody is completely immune. Educate your grandparents, your elderly widowed parent, for the elderly are a fast growing positive population. Be careful, negotiate sex with a new partner before you are in bed, use condoms, reach out and help (or hold) those who are positive, donate money to reputable programs that help with medication and education.
Today I am also remembering the gay men we lost to this epidemic. A whole generation of men who never got to live beyond their 20's or 30's. One guy I went to school with. A friend's brother. Several men I loved dearly. Those who pulled me into the fight against AIDS, to whom I am still grateful.
I hope that someday, maybe in my lifetime, but certainly in Meg's or Myla's, we will no longer need a World AIDS Day.
Blessings to all, especially those who are HIV positive, Margo