For Evany Turk, becoming a part of the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) in Chicago was a natural progression in her life's journey. Over the years the 37-year-old, who was diagnosed HIV positive in August 2001, has become a fierce advocate for young adults in the Windy City.
In 2011 Turk received science, mobilization and treatment training through Chicago's BTAN's chapter. "The training has helped me answer questions more intelligently when I go into the schools," she says of her work as a prevention and outreach counselor for the University of Chicago. "It has also helped me to answer clients' questions about the process of HIV with more confidence."
An advertisement in her community led her to the BTAN training. "I had never been to a training that focused on African Americans and how HIV affects the community," she says. "They broke it down to where two or three people gathering is mobilizing, and that seemed doable." She then took what she'd learned back to the community, where she has facilitated multiple trainings and mobilizations of her own.
For two years Turk also advocated for comprehensive sex education in Chicago schools. "We did a lot of work to get laws changed. Schools must have comprehensive sexual education now, although we have to remind some principals of the law because they don't want us to pass out condoms in the classrooms," she says. "I love the freedom I now have to go into the schools and provide HIV education and tell my own personal story."
Turk wasn't always so up-front. After first finding out that she had contracted the virus, she became depressed and suicidal. She moved from Chi-town to Alabama with her 8-year-old daughter to live temporarily with her godfather (she found her own place four months later), thinking that it would be easier for her to hide. "I wanted to ignore the whole emotional part of it; I didn't want anyone to ask me about it," she says.
"To get to the clinic, I had to go through alleys and in the basement of some back building," she recalls. And she liked it that way, since HIV was highly stigmatized. "I didn't want anybody to know I was going into an HIV clinic. And although a hospital or a clinic is not all people with HIV, when you're stuck in fear, you think everybody knows."
After a few years Turk decided to go back to Chicago to visit. "I hadn't thought about sex for years," she recounts, but she did had sex with a previous partner, who was not HIV positive, while there. Once she returned to Alabama, she found out that she was pregnant; she had been unaware that he had removed the condom during sex. "At that time I knew I was HIV positive and would not knowingly have had unprotected sex," she says of the incident. Her morning sickness was so severe that she was unable to take ARV medicine during her first trimester or care for her daughter.
"The nurse said to me, 'If you don't take the medicine, you're gonna die,' and I had never heard that before," she recalls. So she moved back to Chicago and into the home of her parents, whom she told that she had cancer. Before long, though, they found her medication, researched it online and discovered that she had HIV. "That's when I had to go," she recalls about being kicked out of the house. Turk was homeless and in her second trimester. Her daughter went to live with her biological father.
In 2004 Turk's son was born HIV free. Counseling helped relieve her fear, and she became able to talk about living with HIV.
Turk has always been open and honest with her two biological children -- now 9 and 21 -- as well as the five foster children, ages 18 to 24, whom she later took in. "Every time a new foster child came into my home, I'd advise them of my HIV status, because I refuse to have secrets in my house. We have an open-door policy," she says.
She kept a big bowl of condoms on the dining room table. "I let them know, 'If you ever need to go to the doctor, come talk to me about it; if you're engaging in any sexual activity, come talk to me; I won't judge.'" Her openness made it easy for them to bring their friends over. "We had a lot of educational sessions in my living room," she says.
Chicago sometimes gets a bad rap for being violent, but as a native Chicagoan, Turk knows how to survive there. "I think it's one of the most progressive cities for someone who is HIV positive; there are a lot of resources here. All you have to do is reach out to organizations like BTAN to learn about the treatment and scientific advancements, because looking at how much HIV has advanced to where it is now, we can live a normal lifespan. So if we can live a normal lifespan with the medications we have now, imagine if we keep living -- we might be able to see a cure."
In the meantime, Turk will continue to be a powerful advocate for HIV awareness in the Black community.
April Eugene is a Philadelphia-based writer.