Life in the Balance
An Interview With Marcya Gullatte Owens
By David Evans
AS LITTLE AS FOUR years ago, precious few women in the country advocated HIV treatment for women. At that time, too many people still believed that women -- especially African-American women -- simply didn't need that kind of help. As a 36-year-old, HIV-positive, African-American woman with two HIV-negative children, Marcya Gullatte Owens knew better, though. We met several years ago at an AIDS-advocacy training conference in Atlanta; I knew almost immediately that she was not your average HIV/AIDS activist.
I've always marveled at Marcya's unassuming, humble character. Because many of the other activists I knew were so outspoken -- sometimes gratingly so -- I wondered how she would fare in the often-brutal world of HIV politics. My fears turned out to be groundless; I was pleased to watch on several occasions how easily she took on a room full of seasoned activists and doctors. I've seen Marcya at many conferences over the years and watched her involve herself more and more in a variety of treatment issues, especially HIV treatment for pregnant women.
Unfortunately, that increasing involvement put Marcya in a position familiar to many HIV-positive women and people of color. So many people needed and wanted her: to speak at a conference, to serve on a committee, to participate in one more conference call. If she didn't speak, who would? If she didn't join that committee, who would speak up for positive (and African-American) women? The perpetually growing pile of commitments would drain the energy of Hercules, let alone a self-effacing woman from Georgia.
Yet as exhausting as these demands are, Marcya has somehow managed to sustain her energy and continues to involve herself deeply with AIDS activism, her family, her church (she has been a devout Seventh Day Adventist from the day she was born) and her job as a freelance HIV prevention and treatment advocate. I was pleasantly surprised to run into her at an AIDS conference; we spent a couple of hours catching up.
What would you want people to know about your life and experiences?
I guess I would say that when you first receive your HIV diagnosis, it's like any diagnosis of a major illness ... you don't have to succumb. I mean, with cancer for instance, you wouldn't just sit back and wait to die. I didn't. Also, the power of suggestion is really strong. When I was first diagnosed in 1994, I went to a support group for women. Most of those women were talking about death a lot, death and dying. Nearly all of them are now gone. There were a few women besides myself who were focused on life, on living, and most of us are still here.
I found out that I was HIV positive because I got pregnant. I was in college; I was doing well. The guys I dated were athletes and guys who really had it together. I grew up in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I practiced safe-sex methods 99 percent of the time -- leaving a one-percent window of opportunity to get pregnant and HIV. One percent was obviously enough. I became pregnant in my junior year of college, when I was 23 years old. After deciding to keep the baby, I went to a community hospital and was given an HIV test. Nearly six weeks after learning I was pregnant, I also learned that I was HIV positive.
Do you think coping works differently for women who find out that they are both positive and pregnant?
Yes. I knew that I had to focus on my pregnancy, on the baby. I really didn't have time to think so much of myself. When my daughter was born I named her Mariama, which means "gift of God" in Swahili. And she is, though she gets embarrassed when I tell people. We were blessed that she did not become infected. The only preventative method at the time was good prenatal care. They were just starting to learn about ACTG 076 [giving both the mother and the newborn AZT] and other ways to decrease transmission of HIV, so that was not available to me. I was in labor for three and a half days. My water was broken for well over four hours, and her head sat in my birthing canal for three hours. If that happened today they would probably have given me an emergency C-section or used other tools to reduce her risk. As it is, she is a miracle.
If I hadn't gotten pregnant, though, I would never have been diagnosed so early. I just didn't think of myself as being at risk. I feel lucky that I did find out. I was infected 13 years ago, and there's so much we didn't know then. I knew they said it could happen to anybody, but it just didn't seem real. But the truth is that if you're having babies, and you can't be sure that your partner is monogamous, then you are putting yourself at risk.
Did you ever find out how you contracted HIV?
I was diagnosed with herpes in the fall of 1992. I was diagnosed with HIV in January 1994. I was infected through heterosexual contact. It wasn't Mariama's father who infected me; he's negative.
How did Mariama's father handle everything -- the unplanned pregnancy, your HIV status?
He's getting there. He was clear at the beginning that he wouldn't be there for me. I never allowed myself to have any hate or animosity for my daughter's father, because she looks exactly like him. I hated his behavior, not him. Life was a big party for him. He participated in his daughter's birthdays twice; she's 12 years old now.
I grew up in a single-parent home and I didn't want my daughter to have that. She doesn't have a relationship with her paternal father. But she has a father -- my husband.
When did you meet your husband?
I met Roy in 1996, when I was starting ROSE [Radiant Open-Minded Self-Assured Empowerment HIV/AIDS Project, a nonprofit AIDS service organization targeted at African Americans]. We met at a church picnic for singles. I looked at him and said to my friend: That man is going to be my husband. The Holy Spirit -- or another higher power -- spoke to me quite powerfully, though he wasn't my type or anything.
Immediately, he really took to my daughter. In fact, he liked Mariama before he liked me; she was almost two years old then. We began dating, and after one month I told him I had herpes and HIV. Because he was a minister at the time, we decided to be celibate until we got married.
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