Cleveland Rocks at Fighting Stigma and Discrimination
Rebecca Strong, newly hired Development Associate, informed me that we could order the t-shirts at $10 per shirt and they would be shipped in time for the event. Unbeknownst to her, that press release had set off a flurry of interest, both in the Cleveland area and throughout the country.
Speaking to Rebecca four months later, she'd had a chance to recover from the chaos of getting e-mail orders, sorting, boxing, and shipping t-shirts, and facilitating the Cleveland event. Her calm, friendly voice was completely devoid of the edge of panic I'd heard back in March and it was clear that she was rightfully proud of the event as she gave me the stats.
Over 400 people participated in Anti-stigma Day on March 26. AIDS service organizations (ASOs) and individuals had ordered the t-shirts from such places as Washington, D.C., Texas, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Toronto. At TPAN, a group of 10 of us wore them. 30 people wore them in Bangladesh, and the wife of ATGC's executive director Earl Pike wore one in Israel. In Ohio, the Secretary of State, the Lieutenant Governor, several judges, and a mayor and his daughter wore them.
Asked where the shirts came from, Rebecca explained that the Treatment Action Group (TAG), who had originally created them for a march in Cape Town, South Africa during the International AIDS Society (IAS) conference of 2009, had given ATGC the design and permission to adapt it for their agency. They had an order printed up, not knowing how soon they would be sold out!
What was the result of the day? Many people told of sideways looks on trains or buses, and conspicuous silence in elevators. In the Cleveland Starbucks where Rebecca and her ATGC colleagues took a break, there was actually applause since most of the people had read about the event as reported by a local paper's theatre critic who'd worn a t-shirt in advance.
Could we conclude from this experience that perhaps stigma and prejudice are more internal than external? Could we hope that there is less stigma than we think? We can always hope, but one thing is clear -- the level of ignorance about the disease has not decreased. Based on several naive questions asked of the t-shirt wearers, the fact that knowledge is centered within the HIV community and is not getting out into the general public is only too easy to see.
Rebecca and I fantasized about somehow organizing a "Million Meds March" on Washington, especially at this time of crisis for ADAPs across the country. Could there be a better time to bring the challenges faced by the HIV community out of our insulated niches and up in the face of the public, most of whom don't even know what "ADAP" stands for? What better way to join with the National HIV/AIDS Strategy to start a national dialogue that would educate, empower, and influence behavior enough to put a dent in the rising infection rates?
For me, one of the beauties of the t-shirt campaign was that HIV-negative people enthusiastically participated too. Following the examples of Annie Lenox and Bono, non-celebrities put on a shirt that declared them to be, if not HIV-positive themselves, at least positive towards the people living with HIV. It seems only wise to build upon that alliance, to continue to reach beyond just those living with, affected by, and at high risk of contracting HIV to those who really know very little about our world. I'm reminded of "We Are the World" and the Hands Across America experience I had in the '80s -- now is the time to find that kind of human commonality again. How will we fund it? Who will organize it? I don't know, but surely there are others, besides Rebecca and I, who are willing to keep the dream alive, despite the daunting logistics. Ideas, anyone? E-mail me at email@example.com.
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