Restarting the Conversation on HIV/AIDS in the United States
An Interview With Susan Koch and Jose Antonio Vargas of The Other City
April 29, 2010
Myles Helfand: Wasn't D.C. the last city in the country to actually be allowed to use its own funds for needle exchange?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Yes, for many years, D.C. was the only city in the country that was barred by the federal government from using its own tax dollars to fund a needle exchange program. And again, that tells you: the "other" D.C. and the "other" city, because people don't know that people in Washington, D.C., don't actually have a vote in Congress. To this day they do not have a vote in Congress.
That needle exchange ban wasn't lifted until two years ago. That's one of the things that a couple of the experts in the film -- Colby King was a columnist for the Washington Post and Eleanor Holmes Norton, who's a delegate. She doesn't have necessarily a vote, but she's a delegate to Congress from D.C. And they say that Congress is reprehensible, is responsible for that legislation being put forth.
[Ron Daniels], I remember when I first met him. I spent three months with him and one day he collected 3,000 needles from five stops from about 120 people or so. I'll never forget this one woman who operated one of the metro cars, and she was still wearing her uniform when she was trying to exchange her needles. So I think Ron is a very compelling character, because we find out in the story, as we found out in the documentary, that he himself is HIV positive. And he got it through IDU, intravenous drug use. So he's one of the characters that we featured in the film.
Susan Koch: Another one is J'Mia. She's a young African-American woman, 28 years old. She has three children. She was unknowingly infected by her then-boyfriend who didn't tell her that he was infected. She's just a great, tough young woman who, while we were filming her, got word that she was going to have to vacate her subsidized housing, because the D.C. government had changed providers. So the apartment where she was living was no longer going to be on the list. But they didn't have another place for her to live. So it became a search for her, for over eight months, to try to find a place for her and her three children, and not knowing whether or not they would be out on the street. One of the most wonderful things about her is that you can see her become an activist as time goes by, because she realizes that unless she becomes a squeaky wheel and gets in everybody's face that she probably will end up on the streets. And she's determined to not let that happen.
"I think some of the things that [J'Mia] says will shock people. I remember when we were doing the interview with her and she said, 'If your partner's going to black your eye, you're not going to tell him to put on a condom.' And I was like, 'Whoa,' because I realized that was the reality of her life and the reality of lives for many women. We don't think about that."
-- Susan Koch
She tells it just like it is in terms of what it's like for women. I think some of the things that she says will shock people. I remember when we were doing the interview with her and she said, "If your partner's going to black your eye, you're not going to tell him to put on a condom." And I was like, "Whoa," because I realized that was the reality of her life and the reality of lives for many women. We don't think about that. We just think, "Oh, what, are they so dumb that they won't wear a condom?" I just think that she was just so forthright and so strong.
The reality of it is that African-American women, as she says, have so much on their plate. They're trying to put a roof over their family. They're trying to put food on the table. They're struggling to make ends meet. And often, their own health is the last thing on that list. So often, when they do find out if they are infected, they find out late. They also don't really have time to manage it as well as they need to because, as I said, they're struggling just to survive.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And there goes the reason why AIDS is the leading cause of death for African-American women, ages 25 to 34, in 2010, in the age in which Michelle Obama is in the White House. To me, as somebody in the film, a 28-year-old mother of three who's looking for housing and she's telling you -- this is, I think, as Susan was saying, something that would shock people.
"We seem to think that all we need to do is provide condoms and that's supposed to help prevent this epidemic from spreading. Really, it's a bigger question than that. At the end of the day, a condom is just a conversation starter, right? How much power do I have that I'm going to tell you that you have to put this on? I don't think that we think of it that way. So I think that that's really an important point to bring on."
-- Jose Antonio Vargas
We seem to think that all we need to do is provide condoms and that's supposed to help prevent this epidemic from spreading. Really, it's a bigger question than that. At the end of the day, a condom is just a conversation starter, right? How much power do I have that I'm going to tell you that you have to put this on? I don't think that we think of it that way. So I think that that's really an important point to bring on.
Myles Helfand: How old are J'Mia's kids?
Susan Koch: Ten months --
Jose Antonio Vargas: The youngest is 10 months.
Susan Koch: Yes, maybe a little older now, since it's been a few months since we stopped filming. So I guess one year, I would say; and seven and nine [for the others].
Myles Helfand: Do any of them have HIV also?
Susan Koch: No.
Jose Antonio Vargas: No. The other character that we meet in the film is Jose Ramirez, who's 27. He got infected when he was 17 years old. He actually found out when he was in high school. The high school nurse told him. And the high school nurse called the entire family to the school. The mom didn't know what was going on.
I think we're seeing this, at least the statistics are telling us -- the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] came out with this report -- a lot of young minority kids, Latinos and African Americans, are getting infected by partners, or by boyfriends or lovers, who are much older than they are. Jose was dating somebody in his late 30s. And he didn't know -- the guy didn't tell him that he was HIV positive. At one point when Jose was asking him, "What drug are you taking?," the guy actually said, "It's for my diabetes." And the boyfriend passes away and Jose of course gets infected.
He's been living with it for 10 years, but what's really compelling about Jose is that he's really become a voice in D.C., particularly in the Hispanic community. He does outreach work to young Hispanics and making sure there's HIV awareness, talking to a lot of young illegal immigrants.
One of the most compelling things he talks about in the film is if you're an immigrant and you can't find a job, a lot of the kids turn to prostitution. And using a condom or not using a condom -- of course, guys would pay more if you don't use a condom than if you do.
Susan Koch: The thing that really struck me about Jose was that he was rejected by his father for being gay, thrown out of the house. So when he took up with this older man, he said -- it's ironic -- he said what he felt was safe. And the irony of it was this was the man who infected him, but he took care of him. He provided for him. He paid for him, where he had been rejected by his own father.
Jose Antonio Vargas: And again, that strikes into the point of, yes, it is about getting infected with HIV/AIDS, but this is a bigger issue. He says this in the film, he says that "A lot of the issues that I have is probably because I've always been trying to fill the void that my father [left]." The dad has had how many children, Susan?
Susan Koch: Eleven, with different women.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Eleven, with different women. To me, especially talking about the changing face of AIDS and HIV, I think Jose is definitely, definitely a part of that changing demographic.
Susan Koch: I'll just tell you about one more character because he's a stark reminder that, while we've come a ways in treating the disease, we haven't come as far as we would hope. And that's Jimmy, who is a young white male, age 35. We're there with him as he's admitted to a place called Joseph's House, which is a final resting place, a hospice for people who have AIDS.
Myles Helfand: Joseph's House has been around for a long time.
Susan Koch: Yes, Joseph's House has been around for a long time, and it's always full. There's always a waiting list. And it's now mainly African American. The population used to be primarily gay and white and homeless, but it's changing with the face of the disease. He was one of the few white people who was there over the course of the year we spent there. He had a very loving family who was always [supporting him], but the meds just stopped working. I think he was infected when he was a teen.
Jose Antonio Vargas: He was 18.
Susan Koch: He's just been on so many regimens and they just stopped working. And he had come there. You see how amazing Joseph's House is, how caring and how committed. This one young woman who works there says, "The thought that all these people -- imagine having no place to die." And you just can't help but be overwhelmed by the love and compassion in this house. You can't help but think, "Does it take people dying for us to treat people like this?"
Jose Antonio Vargas: What I think is important about Joseph's House is how much liveliness there is in a place where people die. I remember when I first got there, first experienced what happens when somebody passes away. They get in a circle and they sing "Lean on Me." At first I was like, "Oh my God. What is this?" It is just overwhelming, the kind of compassion that people have for each other. In many ways, that's kind of the point we're trying to bring across with the film, with this idea that we must become each other's witnesses, that we all have a responsibility to each other. I think that's something that we miss with this epidemic, because there's so much judgment placed on it.
Susan Koch: And that's where the "other" comes in, too, because we tend to think of it as other people that have [HIV/AIDS]. So that's also the reason for calling it The Other City, that maybe if we get to know people, we humanize them and we see they're just like us, that we won't have the sense that it's other people that get it. The sense still exists so strongly that you had to do something, that you had to be a bad person or you wouldn't be infected.
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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