October 26, 2011
This is part of a series of articles about the 2011 Women's HIV/AIDS Advocacy and Leadership Summit, which was held Oct. 13-16 in Baton Rouge, La.
So, the official first day of the Women's HIV/AIDS Advocacy and Leadership Summit has arrived. (It is organized by the Campaign to End AIDS [C2EA].) After registration and breakfast, we all congregated in the conference room to hear the keynote address by Deon Haywood. Deon is the executive director of the New Orleans-based organization Women With a Vision, Inc. (WWAV). (She was also named an outstanding HIV/AIDS advocate of 2010 in our article "HIV/AIDS Community Spotlight: People Who Made a Difference in 2010.")
WWAV was co-founded by Haywood's mother and several other black women in 1991 as a social service organization "to promote wellness and disease prevention for women and their families living at or below the poverty line." Most important, it was founded to provide resources for women who are left out of the traditional prevention mix: women living at or below the poverty line, sex workers, women with substance abuse issues and transgender women.
Recently, WWAV took on the issue of how Louisiana's outdated crimes against humanity law had been reinstated. Under that law, sex workers have to register as sex offenders for a maximum of 10 years and have the words "sex offender" printed on their photo identification cards. Luckily, thanks to Haywood and other activists' hard work, this past June, Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law a bill that effectively moves prostitution convictions back to the level of a misdemeanor.
During her keynote speech, Deon talked about the tireless work that she and other advocates put forth to get the bill passed; what's it's been like to work for WWAV; and the systematic oppression that women in the South encounter that exacerbates the HIV epidemic in the region.
One of the most important questions she brought up in her speech was, "How mad are you about AIDS?"
I was really glad that she asked the group that question, because in my opinion, this summit is all about channeling that anger into being a leader who advocates for change. Also, let's keep it real, we have a lot to be angry about.
HIV criminalization, one of those infuriating issues, was the topic of the first session.
The panel included Deon; Brook Kelly, the HIV human rights attorney for Positive Women's Network; and Beirne Roose-Snyder, the managing attorney for the Center for HIV Law and Policy. The ladies went into great detail about the issue and how it impacts women living with HIV. Beirne talked a lot about how many of these ridiculous laws are not even grounded in science or common sense. Based on some of these laws, it's possible to be thrown into prison for decades for spitting on a police officer or biting someone in a bar brawl. She also talked about cases in which women were found guilty even when they disclosed and used condoms -- all because the partner, who may now be an ex, went to court and lied.
Beirne told the crowd, "The courts have this belief that no man would want to have sex with an HIV-positive woman if she disclosed, and we all know in this room, that just isn't true."
A loud "Hmmm mmmm" echoed in the audience.
It makes it seem as if HIV means that a woman doesn't have the right to be sexual. One of the panelists shared a quote from a woman at a past event: The woman had wondered when she would ever be able to feel like the sexual person she is.
Another really important takeaway for me was how HIV criminalization laws were being used to strip women of custody of their children. One woman stood up and said that her ex knew she was positive. As their relationship progressed, they made the decision together to have a child together, which meant having unprotected sex. But when that relationship ended years later, her ex went to court claiming that she had never disclosed her HIV status and she ended up losing custody of her child or facing jail time. She said she was trying to still build a relationship with her daughter, but it was extremely difficult. Her lawyer is still trying to repeal the custody arrangement some 15 years later.
Brook talked about how these types of non-disclosure laws typically impact communities in which members are already disproportionately incarcerated and policed -- these are usually people of color and poor people. She asked, "Do we really want to be locking up more people of color?" This gave the crowd something to definitely think about.
Next up were Olivia and me.
Our presentation was a media training that aimed to provide the women with some insight on: what to do if local or national media calls them for an interview; how to prepare for those interviews; the importance of writing letters to editors and op-eds about poor media coverage or current affairs; and how to pitch their own personal stories and/or organization's events to the media. We also went into great detail about how to craft a media strategy, the importance of fostering relationships with journalists; crafting talking points and staying on message; and why blogging is a good way to articulate the issues that the women take to heart.
While I have spent the past six years building a career on talking about how the media doesn't do a good enough job reporting on the domestic HIV epidemic, it's important to stress the need for HIV organizations to be more media savvy and learn to pitch their own stories. I know it's difficult, because organizations are understaffed with underpaid employees who are doing the job of three people. I completely understand that asking these women to take on even another role is a lot.
But it's crucial in order to increase and improve the media's coverage on our issue.
The reality is that newsrooms are understaffed too. And journalists, who once specialized in one area, such as crime, are finding themselves writing about food and culture and other topics that they might not feel very well versed in. Now add HIV to the mix -- a topic that is complex and nuanced. HIV might prove overwhelming, or an afterthought, for someone who doesn't even realize how much of a problem it is.
We have to work with the media to do a better job (whether that means being nice or being persistent).
Pitching raises a journalist's awareness and does the work for them, which they like. But most important, we stressed to the summit attendees not to be intimidated by journalists.
"You are special, you are worthy and your stories are important. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
We hope that the women enjoyed our presentation as much as we enjoyed presenting it to them.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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