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Pickett Fences: Can You Feel What I Feel?

January/February 2003

"Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away."

The above gem is courtesy of Dr. Terry Tafoya, the executive director of Tamanawit, an international, multicultural consulting company that specializes in sexuality, grief, loss, Native American heritage and spiritual healing. A Native American from the Taos Pueblo and Warm Springs Nations, Tafoya is a clinical psychologist and traditional storyteller, and lucky for those of us in attendance, was one of the featured plenary speakers at the Illinois state conference on HIV and STDs this past fall.

"Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped away."

Tafoya did not claim this beautiful insight as his own, indicating he had heard it from a nurse with whom he was working. But he passed it along to us, and I have repeated it over and over to myself, and anyone who'll listen, since.

Statistics, percentages, numbers, forecasts, demographics, epidemiology, targeted populations, populations at risk, disproportionately impacted populations data, data and more data. While all of it is important, while all of it is absolutely vital to the work we are doing, absolutely crucial to the understanding of the depth and complexity of this fucking epidemic from hell we as a planet are experiencing, the data and the percentages and the statistics and the numbers numb us. Numbers such as "over 42 million" infected worldwide. The numbers like 45 percent prevalence in Botswana. The numbers like 45,000 new infections every year in the United States. The numbers. The numbers. Numb. Us. What does "over 42 million" mean?

We know the anguish and the sting of those tears. We have wet our faces. We have felt our hearts breaking. Our tears have come from desolation and from rage, from pain and fear, and from release and utter joy. We have tasted them. And they were bitter or they were sweet. Or they were both. And we will taste them, again.

We are infected ourselves. We have loved ones who are infected. We are lovers, husbands and wives, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers and friends. We are caregivers and care receivers. We are doctors, nurses, case managers, outreach workers and volunteers. We are educators and public speakers, we are advocates and activists and lobbyists. We are funders and fundraisers. We are executive directors and board members. We wear red ribbons. We raise awareness. We walk, we run, we ride. We stitch. We bitch. We fight back, we fight complacency, we fight ignorance and discrimination and racism and homophobia. We fight poverty. We fight AIDS. We yell, we holler, we scream and shout. We write letters, we send e-mails, we make calls, we get out to get the vote and we vote.

We make love, not war.

We make war.

We fuck like it's the end of the world.

We annoy them by surviving.

We are outraged because we are paying attention.

We bleed.

And we cry. But who sees our tears? Do we wipe them away before anyone takes notice? Do we turn our head? Do we excuse ourselves? Are we ashamed? Do we hide? Do we wipe our tears away before anyone takes notice, before anyone can begin to really understand our pain our anguish our release and our joy? Before anyone can have the opportunity to feel what we feel, to empathize, to try our shoes on for size, to begin to really, truly understand? Do we wipe our tears away, blow our nose, and leave just the bare data, the cold hard facts, the percentages, the stats, along with a snotty Kleenex? Do we dry our eyes and leave compassion, empathy and understanding, humanity, our humanity, to go thirsty? Do we allow only part of the story to be revealed?

45,000 new infections in a year is a statistic.

One is a tragedy.

More now than ever, with the intense political and ideological pressures we are facing, including the Republican-controlled Congress and the extreme conservatism that is threatening the work we all do, those of us directly impacted by this plague, infected and affected, you and I, have a duty. We must make it real. Our suffering and the suffering of those we serve must not be silent. It must not be hidden behind a veil of normalcy, or beneath a burqa of banality if you will. We must not hide behind effective drug regimens, behind smiling faces, behind gym-pumped bodies, behind bathroom doors. We are not seeing people turn into skeletons before our very eyes, as we once did. There is no compelling visual that lets the general public know what a horror AIDS truly is, at least not readily apparent in this country. We must illustrate our outrage, for not everyone is paying attention as we are. And everyone should be. Local concerns are global. Global concerns are local.

We must not allow political agendas to silence our realities and cause even more harm.

We must represent what we are going through, we must be intimate, we must provide the context, we must give details. We must also talk -- a lot -- about what works and what doesn't work. I am thinking about prevention and comprehensive sexuality education here. There is not a shred of science behind the shit storm of abstinence-only propaganda. Who are we telling? It's not up to someone else, it's up to us.

One new infection is a tragedy.

We must share our stories and make visible our tears.

How do they taste? Are they bitter, sweet, or both?

It's up to us.


Call the Capitol switchboard at 1-800-648-3516.

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To read more of Jim Pickett's columns, click here.

This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also
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