When did you first realize that you were African American?
My first job in college. My supervisor was Caucasian, and she happened to make a remark. There was a movie that had come out and I don't know if it was Boyz N the Hood, but it was depicting how some people live in South Central. She made a comment that was really stereotypical. That's when I realized, "Oh, OK, so this racism is real." Of course I'd read about it in school, but to actually experience it, that was my first moment. I was too stunned to say anything, but I couldn't believe it.
How have you learned to deal with racism?
I always remember what my grandmother told me -- that people are going to be who they are. But I can't belittle myself or let other people's opinions make me. I just have to continue to be original and who I am. So, you know racism exists, it's sad, but it does exist, and for me, I just have to continue to fight it.
Particularly, I see racism in HIV and AIDS when it comes to public policy, to funding. It may not be overt, but you can read between the lines and see it, because now that we know the face of AIDS has changed to African-American women and people of color, the gay white boys are really fighting us. The HIV and AIDS medical system was designed for affluent gay white men who were dying. Now that people are living longer and it has changed to people of color, a lot of gay white men are really upset because the funding is going to switch. They're starting to get really upset, starting to do underhanded stuff so that they can continue to get the money.
For example, when they do their statistics or when they do studies. It's like if you're looking for apples, you're going to go to the apple orchard. You know what I mean? It's not even and it's not fair. Especially when it comes to women -- it's like they really could care less about a woman's needs, because women come with packages. We have children, we need transportation, we need child care. They want to eliminate all the supportive services and just keep the medical. If a woman doesn't have a support group, child care, transportation, she's not going to stay in care. That's not going to happen, because as we know, we put ourselves on the back burner so that we can take care of our families, and by the time we get ready to take care of ourselves, sometimes it's a little bit too late.
Gay white men need to accept the change. It's as simple as that. They need to accept the change that HIV is not just about them. It's everybody -- this is a human disease, not just a gay disease.
What is the biggest challenge facing African Americans today in terms of HIV?
I think the biggest challenge facing African Americans today in terms of HIV are social and economic factors. A lot of us don't know how to read. A lot of us have not finished high school. Many have had poor education, no jobs. Lots of people do not trust the medical community. If you take all of those, low self-esteem, low self-worth, no housing, and the fact that some people don't know that they have access to services. A lot of people feel if they become HIV positive, how are they going to pay for the medication? So they're not aware.
Are there any specific aspects of African-American culture or identity that give you strength?
Our strong spiritual connection with the church, with family. I'm fortunate in that I do have a strong support system within my family. We understand living with the virus. I think that's an advantage. Our spiritual connection, family, and then knowing how to survive.
What is the biggest change you'd like to see in HIV treatment, prevention or education for African Americans?
The biggest thing I would like to see is the providers being more culturally sensitive, breaking the barriers of stereotypes. I've had experiences where I've disclosed that I was HIV positive when I went to a doctor, and they immediately think I was a prostitute or a drug user, something like that. And that's not the case. I'm a housewife and I was infected by my husband.
Prevention shouldn't be geared only to those target populations -- the sex workers, the IV drug users. Prevention needs to be universal. It needs to be targeted to anyone who is having unprotected sex, who has gotten or is getting tattoos, drug-to-drug contact. It needs to be across the board.
Do you think the Bush administration is doing enough for the black epidemic?
They're not doing enough. They need to put more Ryan White CARE money across all Titles [services], and not just medical care. You still need supportive services. Twenty-five percent needs to be geared toward women -- across all Titles -- because women are the fastest growing group.
How would you grade Bush's performance?
I'd give him an F.
What are your fears and hopes for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV?
We have to change policy. Things are changing, but the policy is not changing.
So if it takes us women and [organizations like] Women Alive to change it, then so be it. Particularly in the funding, because it all boils down to funding.
We see it every day, the absurdness of stuff that happens to women in this field, especially women of color. [Organizations like] Women Alive, though, I think they do a good job -- their executive director is not the type to just lie back and not say anything. She's going to speak her mind and she's going to speak what's right. She's training all the women that work there on the things that are right in this field.
You said you speak in churches. What kind of responses have you had?
Where I speak mainly is black churches because of the stigma that the black churches have, or what they think a person with HIV looks like. I've had a lot of positive experiences. People have always welcomed me. People always told me that they need this information.
Historically, for African Americans, the black church is where you get all your information. So the black church needs to be educated about the issues that concern African Americans, and HIV is one of them. It needs to be looked at as a health issue, not as a demonized issue. Did you do something bad because you've got diabetes? Did you do something bad because you have high blood pressure? No, it's your behavior that puts you at risk.
What has your health been like since your diagnosis?
The only thing that has happened to me was when I was exposed and sero-converted to HIV -- I got really sick with what I thought was a severe case of the flu. But ever since I was diagnosed, I've been healthy. I haven't had any HIV-related illnesses. In fact, last November marked four years that I haven't been taking HIV antiretrovirals.
Why did you decide to stop treatment?
I was part of a study -- a second-generation non-nuke drug trial, and that medication had caused my liver enzymes to become elevated, so they had to stop all my drugs. That's when I told my doctor I would like to stay off the medication completely. So that's been four years now.
How did you choose your current doctor?
I've been with him three years now. My employer told me I had to start using the insurance if they were paying for it, so that's when I did a little searching. I found out that Kaiser [Kaiser Permanente Medical Center] at Sunset and Vermont in Los Angeles is the best. They have been in the epidemic since it started, so their doctors are really experienced with HIV patients.
Do you think you are getting the best care possible?
I think I get really good care. My doctor and I sit and talk for a good 30 minutes.
Is your doctor an African American?
No, he's Asian. I think because he is a person of color he understands. So it's not hard for me to talk to him.
Does your doctor treat you like a partner in terms of making decisions about your health?
He does. He always asks me what I think. He'll always push back to me that the decision is up to me.
Do you have a particular health regimen that helps you stay well?
I try not to stress out. I haven't been exercising lately, but I do exercise, and I watch what I eat.