July 30, 2012
These three stories of personal survival and growth are reprints from previous issues of Positive Voice, chosen because they illustrate key themes of the International AIDS Conference.
Margot experienced stigma and exclusion from health care simply because she was an HIV-positive woman in 1991. She survived and has grown into one of NAPWA's most effective care advocates.
Miss GiGi tells us how she transitioned from male to female, what it was like to be an in-between early teenager looking for love on the street, and how easy it was to slide into sex work before she pulled her life together and, like Margot, became an advocate.
Our third story teller chose to remain anonymous. She was victimized by HIV-specific criminal laws and a justice system that believes white people's testimony over black people's, and men's over women's.
Patient care advocate Margot.
It's two decades since Margot was diagnosed. When she was, she lost a lot of important support -- her doctor wouldn't talk to her anymore, and her nurses wanted her to abort the child she was carrying. Much has changed in twenty years. When she tested positive and her daughter was born positive, both the health care infrastructure and available HIV medications were inadequate. Twenty years later, Washington, D.C. is showing the world how to provide effective health care in an entrenched, concentrated HIV epidemic -- and Margot, a survivor, has grown into a care advocate in NAPWA's Consumer Advocacy Project (CAP), helping newly diagnosed D.C.-area residents navigate a system as bewildering today in the multitude of its options as it was twenty years ago in its lack of them. But stigma is still with us. People are still literally dying of shame, going untested rather than face the truth when they know something's wrong. And only today is a movement growing to talk realistically about HIV, sex, and stigma in black American faith communities.
Positive Voice: Margot, how would you like to tell us how you first learned you were HIV-positive, and what was going on in your life at that time?
Margot: I learned I was HIV-positive during my fifth month of pregnancy, during a prenatal visit in 1991. At that time, I was coming out of my second marriage. I had three other children. This would be my fourth. Our marriage was on the rocks, I had made the decision to leave the marriage, and I discovered I was HIV-positive.
What was it like, learning to navigate the care system?
Well, in 1991 there wasn't one. I was advised to terminate my pregnancy. Prior to my diagnosis, my doctor thought I was a lovely person. When he gave me my diagnosis, he wouldn't even look at me. He turned his back to me, never touched me, never gave me any information. The next thing I knew, a nurse was coming in to give me information about abortion. That was it.
Did you have the child?
Yes I did. I gave birth to my daughter Hollis in January of 1992. She transcended in March of 1994.
So, at the time, there was no system. What did you have to do to get the services you needed?
I didn't know what to do. I didn't know there were any services. No one was giving me any information. From the reaction I received from the medical community, I learned early on that I could not rely on them. They just cut me off. Like I didn't deserve to have a child, she didn't deserve to live, and I was not someone who deserved respect. In fact my diagnosis was disclosed to my sister during my labor. It was total disrespect and lack of compassion and education.
I didn't know anything about HIV. I thought it didn't have anything to do with me, from the messaging I was seeing on TV -- I was a black lady from New York, I was married, I wasn't a drug user. I was a homemake, so how could this possibly have anything to do with me?
And then not receiving information from the medical community -- your doctor turns his back on you, he's a medical professional, he's supposed to care for you and about you. And now he detests me, will not even look at me. He did not deliver my child. Another doctor did, and in the middle of the delivery he looked down at me and said, "So how long have you been HIV-positive?" In front of my sister. Who didn't know.
So after I had my daughter, I ran to San Jose, California, where I didn't know anyone -- and no one knew me.
Obviously you've learned to navigate the HIV care system -- as there came to be a system. How did you learn?
It was ten years later. It really took me ten years before I reached out to the medical community. I would of course connect Hollis to a pediatrician, but at that time they didn't know how to treat infants. She was given AZT, and, to this day, I'm not sure, was it the disease that killed her or was it the AZT that destroyed her kidneys. I struggle with that every day.
So I didn't seek care for ten years. And I got to the point in my disease that I was down to four T-cells. I was extremely ill before I started my meds. I've always been a working person. And when I sought care -- was forced into care -- it was here in D.C., and I remember going to the doctor and being told by one of the nurses that I should not be in the clinic, because she saw me get out of my nice car, and she saw the way I dressed. She was pretty much accusing me of taking services from people who needed them. But little did she know at the time that I was too sick to work. And always having worked, I had accumulated things over the years, and to be judged by what I wore and drove was very hurtful. I did not know at the time that there was rental assistance, food assistance, ADAP assistance, because no one told me these things. So my family was paying for my medication out of pocket. I lost my housing. I had to sell my car, this beautiful car I had for nineteen years, because no one told me there were programs in place to assist me. I learned from my family that I was going to have to sink or swim on my own, because they were getting complacent and saying, let's just make her transition as easy as possible. Which was kind of hard to take.
When I was in the hospital, I actually heard my sisters tell the physician they had made "arrangements" for me. I was almost in the box. And I don't know what happened over the next day or two, but I decided I was going to live. And I started doing what I was supposed to do. When the nurse came and brought me my medication, I wouldn't reject it. When they brought me food, I would eat it. I made myself get up.
And ironically, two years later I started working in the HIV community. It was a fluke. I didn't know anything about services or agencies. One of my sisters had met an outreach worker -- and this is why it's so important to have community workers and outreach workers, peer buddies and peer navigators. Because she heard this woman speak and went to her for information, and then started going to a support group for positive women, even though my sister is negative. I didn't know my sister was doing this for a year, just getting information.
And after my last surgery, I decided I wanted to go back to work at my old job. They were going to accept me back. But my sister, without my knowledge, had given my resume to a woman named Patricia Knowles at the Women's Collective. My family had sent me on vacation [laughs] to Aruba, I guess they thought this was going to be it, and when I came back there was this message from a woman I had never heard of. She kept calling, and I finally asked my sister, who is this, and she said, you should talk to her.
So I met with her, and it was the first time in eighteen years that someone who knew I was positive actually embraced me. I was in an environment where there were all these positive women, and they were saying I'm HIV-positive like they were saying I'd like a glass of lemonade. They were strong and beautiful and courageous. And I wanted that. I didn't want to go home and hide in my room anymore. I wanted to be part of this thing that was happening in this office. I wound up staying there the entire afternoon, just talking to these positive women, who like me lost loved ones, spouses, children, who like me had been shamed and tossed aside and written off.
So I walked out of there with a job!
So now you were working in the HIV community. How did you come to CAP as an advocate?
To make a long story short, fast forward ten years again. I seem to do things by ten years. I left the Women's Collective to go to another agency, and I was asked to come to AIDSWatch. That was another huge thing for me, because I looked around and said, Oh my God, look at all these people, and they're shouting I'm positive and running up steps on Capitol Hill and making all this noise and sitting in briefings, and I never thought I would be able to participate in something like that. It was very powerful to me.
And at AIDSWatch that day I met Vanessa Johnson and Steve Bailous -- who I had met before, when CAP was just starting and he came to the Women's Collective and I lassoed him into doing some volunteer work for me, and I knew Vanessa from Ms. Foundation. I happened to have a resume with me, and I told them I was looking for a job. Ten months later -- there goes ten again -- I looked on FaceBook, and there was this message, so I went to meet with Ms. Johnson and Mr. Bailous and started working in NAPWA's capacity building programs. Then one day Steve and Frank Oldham called me into Frank's office and said, we want to work as a CAP advocate.
And I said, Yeah! I love working with people. That's my niche, and it take me back to my roots, because way back when I started on my own journey, after the treatment I received from the medical community, I made myself a promise that I would never treat people like, that I would go out of my way to make sure they were OK, no matter what their decisions were about their disease.
And so becoming a CAP advocate allows me to do that. And nothing's better than when you can give someone something that will help sustain them. Sometimes it's something a simple as just giving them a hug.
Miss GiGi Thomas.
Miss GiGi Thomas joined Positive Voice's special World AIDS Day edition, December 1, 2010, to talk about the special HIV experience and needs of transgendered people. She transitioned from man to woman the hard way -- and came back from it strong, focused, determined to serve her community. After years serving clients at HIPS -- a Washington, DC organization working to end violence against sex workers and helping them improve their lives -- she's now a medical case manager at DC's Family and Medical Counseling Services.
GiGi's interview is a jaw dropper. She doesn't hold things back, she's made mistakes and learned from them, and she wants us to know exactly what they were. But there are plenty of take-aways here besides what GiGi did or didn't get right the first time around. All of us who have had to access HIV healthcare and support services know how difficult it can be to get what we need and deserve. It's even harder for marginalized people like transgendered "girls" on the street, and the problems are all connected. Police protection, not persecution, is HIV prevention. Stable housing is HIV prevention. Emergency shelters that welcome the girls and don't mock them are HIV prevention. Here's what GiGi had to tell us....
Positive Voice: GiGi, tell us about transitioning. What made you want to transition from a man to a woman, and what was the experience like?
Well, first, I never expected to transition. But the one thing I always realized was that I was different. At the age of eight I was doing it with my brother's best friend, he was sixteen, and basically he didn't assault me, I attacked him. I was always attracted to men, I liked the way a man walks, I liked the muscles. But I was raised in the church, and I didn't understand why I was the way I was, I felt like this weird person, I felt all alone. I was walking the streets at night at twelve, my family didn't know, I was trying to find out who I was. Guys used to pick me up and give me drugs and buy me sweatsuits, give me money. And I really liked it, because I'm the baby of five and my mom she always did her best as a single parent, but there was a lot that I wanted and needed. I was looking for love. And my family didn't know about my sexuality, I didn't know how to bring it up to them, my biggest fear was that I was going to lose their love.
I have a best friend who's now my daughter, and she was making her transition from a male to a female. At first I couldn't stand transsexuals, transgenders, I thought that was the worst thing in the universe -- you're already African-American and gay, and why in the world would a man want to dress up in women's clothes? So I didn't like transgenders. I won't use the word hate, but I despised them. I wasn't educated then, I didn't know a lot of what I know now. My girlfriend Sheila asked me to go out with her for Halloween and I dressed up as a female, miniskirt, cute wig, cut all the hair off my face -- and when I went out it was so exciting. Wow, guys were coming up to me, getting my phone number, and this was really cool. I started doing it once or twice a week. But I was still sneaking around, I got on drugs at the age of fifteen, I didn't know how to deal with coming out. I heard in church, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, I heard all this stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah. I knew I was a good person, I was a loving person, and I was going to Hell and I didn't choose this, this was who I am. Why didn't I have a chance like everyone else?
And growing up in the Southeast, DC area, it was truly hard to be identified as a homosexual or a gay person. I was going out twice a week, my drug progression started going up more and more, because I was meeting more guys that were giving me drugs. I was meeting transgenders with problems in their lives like being homeless, not having a good support system, not having family, dropped out of school, on drugs real heavy, doing sex work and everything else, and I became part of the crew. Started doing drugs very heavily, drugs every day, lost my job at the Washington Post, I was there for six and a half years. I didn't actually do my first dress up until I was twenty-one, I actually didn't start transitioning until was twenty-six, because when I lost my job at the Post I became a full-time sex worker. I came out to the family at twenty-one, and I'm smiling now, but it was all like, it's just a phase, he's such a sissy, it was the most hurtful thing in the world. I was so lost, because my family was all I thought I had for a support system. And it made me do some hurtful things to myself, drugs, sometimes it was a 500 to a 1000 dollar habit a day, and I started transitioning because I thought, you're better than this. I decided to go to a program, because I had to make a decision about who I wanted to be, I still had one foot in being a male-to-female and one foot in being a gay male. And I talked to my Higher Power, my God, and I said, you go into this program as GiGi, this is who you want to be. That's when I made my decision that was going to be a gender queer. I never wanted to be a female, because I knew I'm not a female, I just knew that I was different. And because I like the opposite sex, straight men, I had to dress and express myself as a female.
So I transitioned, got myself into a drug program, got a sponsor, that was in 1999, and it's been like going up the hill ever since. That's how my transition worked for me, I don't regret it at all, all that experience, it's been a wonderful life. I'm able to talk to others. I have a relationship with my family now. Some of my sisters don't accept me, but my mom and I are best friends. Some of them started saying, you need to go to a men's retreat, but I was getting my breasts enhanced, and then they were saying, well, we could deal with you being a gay man ... But I had made my decision. People in the program told me, maybe you should think about becoming female, it's going to be hard for you to get a job, things like that, pushing back at me, and I started having depression but I didn't give up. I got a job, even though they discriminated against me when I first went to work there, I tried to dress down, not be openly female, but I couldn't take off my nails, they saw them and said, we don't need you, we already have someone transgendered.
So it's been difficult. Today when I do trainings I share about my experience, what I was doing at eight years old, I want people to know that their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews may be out there having sex. So watch your children and know what going on with them, and don't beat them up with judgment, but give them support and love. My transition could have been so much better if I had had some support from my family about what was going on with me. I had mental problems. I never wanted to commit suicide, but there were times I wanted to give up, because if I didn't have my family I didn't have no one. In my trainings, I have grandmothers come up to me and say, thank for sharing your experience, because I have a grandchild who's going through the same thing, I love him but I don't know what to do with him. I say, make a safe place for him, because you can put yourself at risk. I could have had someone cut my throat when I was twelve -- there are some psychos out there , maniacs, people who want to hurt you -- and my family didn't even know what was going on with me. It would have saved me a lot of trauma in my if I had been able to express myself, to say, Mom, I am who I am. Because when they did find out they turned their back on me, and it made me do things even worse. I'm a loving person, a giving person, even if I'm feeling bad I'll try to put a smile on your face, but I wasn't doing good things for me. I was helping people get into programs, get help for themselves, and basically I needed help for myself.
So you made mistakes, but it sounds like they led you somewhere. How did past mistakes become empowerment for you? How did you get into the business of serving other transgendered people?
We all make mistakes in life. None of us are perfect, and you can't judge a person on a mistake or put them down, because we'll all be put down. Sometimes the trials and tribulations we go through in life make us the outstanding people we are today. Picking up drugs at a very young age, looking for love in all the wrong places, has made me so much stronger and independent and able to find help.
When I was a sex worker on the street, getting my life together and going through drug treatment, I saw that to stop one addiction you have stop all your addictions. Because I stopped doing drugs, but I was still addicted to the lifestyle, doing sex work. When I saw the HIPS van, I was so discombobulated I didn't know what they really stand for. I saw a bunch of Caucasian persons on the van, I thought one of their family members had passed away from HIV and AIDS, and they had all this money and were just handing out condoms because they wanted to save someone's life, they missed their family member so much. One day I went up to the van and thanked them for passing out condoms, and I was feeling sorry for them. And this young lady told me, we need someone to come onto our advisory board so we can meet the needs of the sex workers out here. And I said, OK. And I told them about being clean and being in a drug recovery program, and they were just so happy for me. So the love, the caring. . . them wanting to support me, I wanted to support them. There were five or six on the advisory committee, but for the first six months I was the only one showing up, bring them information about the street. I started learning about the organization learning they were trying to intervene, not just to get people off the streets, but portecting them from HIV and STDs and helping them get relocated back with their families. I was like, wow, this is really great. And I started doing volunteer work with them, and then I worked with the case manager, Patricia Novinsky, we had a lot in common at heart. She was like in her sixties, we had this relationship, and she would tell me how she loved how I worked with the clients. If we had a client out there and she was busy, I was the one who worked with them, and she was like, wow, you are the best. It really empowered me, taking my experience and my mistakes, being able to share with others how I had turned my life around. I was touching their lives, it wasn't something I planned to do, it was just the spirit that was in me. And they opened up this position for office manager, sixteen or seventeen people applied for it and I ended up getting the postion, and they told me, GiGi, we didn't just pick you for this because you've been doing volunteer work with us, you blew that interview out of the frame. And when I became the office manager, I also became the case manager assistant, because they loved how I interacted with the clients. A lot of them were coming in on drugs, homelessness, and I could give them information. In the two years I was there, we started with seven staff members, we had to downsize to two because we had lost a lot of funding, they were keeping the executive director and outreach manager, and they told me they were keeping me too. Sometimes you don't see the good things about yourself, but they told me, girl, you wear too many hats around here, you can do too many things, outreach case management, get ready for the audit. Some of us started another organization called Different Avenues for people getting out of prison, and they wanted me to come on board as a deputy director, but the funding wasn't really there, and I was loving the work I was doing at HIPS too much to leave. I went on their board, and I was always very supportive of them, going over there to see how they were doing.
So that's how you got into the business of serving transgendered people.... It's quite a story! Can you tell us about the services themselves? What kinds of problems do the girls have to deal with, and what do you help them do it? What kinds of situations did you have to intervene in?
Well, the girls would come to me, not just because I was employed at HIPS, but because I had "one foot in and one foot out". HIPS is very non-judgmental, they don't judge you or discriminate against you because they know, if you're still working the street, it's part of your lifestyle. You can get arrested, and they say, heads up!, if you get arrested you can lose your job -- but they don't say you can't work here, because they aren't trying to be the police enforcing the law. They try to stay away from that.
And having first-hand experience, well ... We were seeing more and more young transgendered women coming out here on the street, homeless, no support from their families, and that was a major problem, because you had five or six, sometimes even ten girls sleeping in a one-bedroom hotel, trying to survive and trying to make it, because honestly and truly they had nowhere to go. Putting themselves at risk with a date, if you say you charge $75 for sex, the date may say I got $150 if you let me have sex with you without a condom. And they think, oh, $150, I can get me a hotel room, I can get me something to eat, I can buy me some makeup. Or maybe I can get out of the room with ten people and go in with three or four people. They wasn't looking at they was putting themselves at risk, they was looking at survival skills. You had a lot of transgendered women that were HIV-positive who weren't identified as positive because of the work they were doing, because they were afraid of how people would look at them or judge or tell -- because if you're dating and someone knows, the dates will know, the girls all know, and everyone else, you have to keep it closed.
Another thing was employment, it's extremely hard for transgenders to get employment unless you have a high school diploma, and a lot of them were dropping out of school, and then because of their sexuality, they didn't have a name change or still had "M" on the ID -- when you go to a job, they'll be like, Oh no, because they don't know how to deal with that.
And on the homeless thing again, a lot of them were having trouble getting into shelters. I would call around the DC area to the men's shelters and to the women's shelters, say, we have a transgendered woman who needs to get into a shelter, and they would say, what is that, we don't deal with that here. New York Avenue shelter was outstanding, they'd say, oh, we've already got some transgenders here, tell them come on over and we'll make them welcome. Not some others. It used to break my heart, because how can we meet the needs of our transgender community when we say we're a transgender resource and we can't even get them into emergency shelter? So me and Earlene Budd, what we did was meet up with Lisa Mottet, one of the lawyers for the transgender community, and we did a transgender training for the shelters. We did it for the women's shelters and the men's shelters, we had all the shelters in the Washington, DC area come together because we met with a Council member, it was a mandatory training, and we did the training. And as you see, the beautiful young lady that I am now, I was a little more beautiful then because I was a few years younger, I said, if I was to come to you, where would you house me? And a lot of them would say, you can be with the females. So I said, but if I want to send you a transgendered woman, you all say you don't want to deal with them. You say they have to go somewhere else, we won't allow them here. So a few of the women's shelters opened up their doors to transgendered women, but the waiting list was longer than the housing list, which is three years, so you still couldn't get them placed in women's shelters right away. So we're still sending transgendered women to men's shelters, but a lot of times they're kept close to staff for safety, not just from other clients, because some of the staff weren't sensitive and didn't understand the transgender community, they would say, you a man, you need to take that off and stop dressing like that, and other clients would start laughing at that. And it made them feel uncomfortable, so a lot of transgendered women wouldn't go to shelters. They would sleep in abandoned houses, put themselves at risk for more money not using a condom, they would sleep in abandoned cars, they would start doing drugs and go to these men's houses who were doing drugs all night long, and they were picking up more negative habits just trying to survive on the streets.
And also, a lot of transgendered women was being victimized, the dates would date them, a lot of times they would they was females or even not knowing they was females, seeing being transgender or gay as "weak," and when they paid them the money they would rob them. And not just rob them for that date but for everything they earned that night. And a lot of the women, they weren't giving up their money that easy, because they wouldn't have nowhere else to go. So we had a lot of women that got stabbed, raped, beat up, killed. Me being the 24-hour crisis intervention hotline supervisor, they were calling us at any time, whether it was two o'clock in the morning or two o'clock in the afternoon. We had eight other volunteers that were trained on the hotline, and we had to meet caller wherever she was, so long as it was a safe place. If it wasn't, we would tell them, you can go to the nearest police station or hospital and we will meet you there. If I was asleep, I would have to get out of bed, go meet the person, find out what happened, what's going on, then usually get them relocated with their family or put them up into an emergency shelter -- an emergency hotel, because we had funding for hotels -- until we could work with them the next day and other organizations had opened up and we could get them into a safe place. But, yeah, we had so many women getting assaulted, you know, getting raped, and when you get raped you have to get the sex kit for the police, the detectives to be able to file any charges, and also to get victim compensation, because they wanted to have proof. And the detectives would come and say, oh, you a man, how did you get raped? Men don't get raped. And they would say, ooh, are you a prostitute, instead of asking about what happened in the incident. So a lot of times, if they was raped, robbed, beat up or whatever, they wouldn't even go and file a report, because of the harassment and how the detectives would treat them, even at the local hospitals, unless they was stabbed or shot and needing that medical attention right away. So a lot of the time they wouldn't follow up. But we would hear these stories doing outreach, ask them, did you file a report, and they would say, no, child, I didn't file a report ... They had police officers out here who would act like they was locking the girls up, take them down the street and say, either give me some head or let me have sex with you, or I'm locking you up. You have sex with that person or give him some head because you want to feel protected. So they did it with the police officers for protection, thinking, they'll allow me to be out here when they're telling everyone else to get off the street. It was chaos. Where we're sitting at now, 5th and K Streets, this used to be the stroll for the transgender community, but as they started putting up these hotels and condos, they started pushing them down the street toward North Capitol, darker areas where the young guys would just come and rob them or stab them. They wasn't worrying about, we're pushing these people into darker areas where it was harder for HIPS and other organizations to bring them what they need, where there was more drugs. You don't see as many transgenders out on the street as you did two or three years ago because a lot of them are doing internet, but you still have a lot of girls that's getting arrested, and when they get out of jail, there's no services for them, even a halfway house, we didn't have a halfway house for trangendered women. Sometimes they'd call me from the halfway house and say, hey, they want me to take off my girl's jeans and put on big boy jeans, stuff like that, they want me to wear my hair straight back, and a lot of girls would say, send me back to jail.
That's the kind of things the girls were facing around here. No kind of social support. I shared with HIPS, when I was out here with the girls, one of the things I felt was alone. Even though you saw other girls out here, everyone was for herself, trying to make it, trying to survive. You didn't have no friends, you could have your throat cut or get robbed and not have anyone to turn to help you out, because you was all alone. It was great seeing an organization like HIPS that was coming around giving you condoms, give you hot chocolate when it's cold, give you gloves and hats, because somebody actually cared, somebody actually understands what's going on with us.
GiGi, we've never done an interview quite like this one. Thank you so much.
But I want to tell you about what I'm doing now with Family and Medical Counseling Services!
Wonderful! You've moved on from HIPS?
Yes, I'm at FMCS now. I started going for my bachelor's degree at University of the District of Columbia, I'll be getting my dgree in May of 2011, I started my internship with FMCS in August of 2009, and they hired me as a medical case manager in October. I've been there a little over a year, and it's turned out extremely well. A lot of the girls are coming over to get help with housing services, getting hooked up with health insurance, we're able to help them out with food stamps, we're able to get them medical care, behavioral health services, substance abuse, it's like a one-stop program over there on Martin Luther King Avenue. Now that I'm a medical case manager, I'm able to do more services for them, help them get their names changed, helping them out with employment, helping a lot of the girls get jobs, which can be hard, but we've done very well providing a real depth of services. And I can't forget our Transgender Health Empowerment program, which has the first transgender housing support for the community, it's great, Miss Earlene Budd works there. And we just did a church training for Umbrella, a housing umbrella organization for transgendered women and young guys making the transition who have gotten kicked out of their homes.
So I must say, things aren't like they used to be, five and ten years ago, they are getting better. Some people might look at it as a slow change, but any change is a positive change, and I'm just so glad that I'm a part of the change.
This contributor asked not to be identified. That's always OK with us, and it's especially OK here -- considering what she's been through, we're impressed and grateful that she would tell her story at all. Read all about it, folks: this really happened, this is what happens when the law pursues HIV-positive people into their bedrooms ... And it shows how easily disempowered women become nameless and faceless -- this contributor still doesn't want to name herself -- and how ultimately homophobic HIV criminalization laws fail to prevent transmission of HIV but are wonderfully effective at victimizing black women.
We present her story exactly as she wrote it for us. Where you see whole words in capitals -- that's how she wrote it. She's angry.
Why did this happen to me? I was a mother, daughter, and I thought I was someone's girlfriend. In January 2002, I was picked up from my job, placed in a squad car and transported to the local police department where I was served and charged with Exposing someone to HIV. The police questioned me for hours asking me if I had told my boyfriend that I was HIV positive. Yes, why wouldn't I, we had just had a baby together, HE took me to most of my doctor appointments, which I might add had to be in another town because the town that I was living in said that they could not give me any prenatal care because I had told them that I was HIV positive and they considered me to be "High-Risk." If I had not told my boyfriend that I was HIV positive, how could my mother and grandmother have known. . . oh, I didn't tell you; my boyfriend was the first to tell my mother and my grandmother of my status. After being questioned for hours, I was released on bond. It never occurred to me to get a real lawyer to help me figure out this mess that I was going through. As a result, I got a public defender and he put me through the ringer. Every month I had to go to court to roll call, until one day my public defender called me and said that we were going to court.
So in April 2003, myself, my mom, my public defender were in court, and, unknown to me, sitting in the back of the court room was my baby's father. I was sentenced to 10 years, suspended to 3 with 2 years probation. How the h*ll did I get into this mess? As I sat in the jail cell, my whole life, everything that I had worked so hard for, was crumbling down right before my feet. There was a big write up in the local paper about me saying that I had exposed someone to HIV without their knowledge. How could that be? My son's father was much older than I was, but at the same time, he had the common sense of a twelve-year-old. There was no way that my son's father, the man who initially told my parents about my HIV status, the man who came with me to my doctor appointments, the man who was there when I was in labor with our child, and the man who had come WITH me to many of our son's Infectious Disease appointments -- where, I might add, he himself had asked the doctor plenty of questions about our son's status. . . which, I thank God, is HIV-negative. I was hurt, I was torn, and most of all, I had other children at home. What was I supposed to do? While incarcerated, my son's father was still taking me through the ringer. He went to the local court house and asked for custody of our three-year-old son. At the court hearing, the judge granted my son's father temporary custody because he said that there was no way that I was getting out of jail today or tomorrow and that my son needed to be with his father.
Once I was shipped to the State Correctional Facility, my nightmare had yet to end. When you first enter the Correctional Institute, you have to tell ALL of the officers what your charge was. Yet another blow because one of my classmates worked at the institute. Once being placed in a cell for 23 hours, after a month of being medically cleared, I was placed on a building that ONLY housed HIV/AIDS inmates. If that wasn't enough, EVERYONE in the prison knew you were HIV positive just because of the building that you stayed on. Maybe I could have gotten an early release, but due to the laws of the State Correctional Facility, persons with HIV/AIDS cannot get work release therefore, their time is not mandated like everyone else's. Persons with HIV/AIDS cannot work in the cafeteria, cannot work on the outside of the "fence", cannot be granted work release.
There are all kinds of stories about how good people with HIV/AIDS are treated in prison, but I'll be the first to say, that is a lie; I lived that nightmare, I've gone to the infirmary only to have a so-called HIV/AIDS doctor not want to touch me, I've been through the nightmares of having people on my building get sick but not receive any medical attention until it was approved by a person of higher authority. I had to live through the nightmares of some of the correctional officers saying things like "y'all just nasty", or wiping off or spraying down their desk anytime a HIV/AIDS inmate came into the office just to get a Tylenol.
To God who made me, I can honestly say that I would not trade this experience for anything because it has taught me so much of just how ignorant, mean hearted and cruel people can be against persons who are HIV positive. So, I must give thanks to my son's father, who knew all too well that he was informed of my HIV status before we EVER slept together. I want to thank him for lying and I want to thank him for wanting to see me fall. In the end, God knows all and sees all.