November 15, 2010
For our World AIDS Day 2010 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- mostly those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.
Rhea Van Broklin
Who would have guessed that Iowa, of all places, would be in the midst of transformational change in our nation's battle regarding equal rights? On April 3, 2009, when the Iowa Supreme Courts ruled in favor of gay marriage in our great state so many people rejoiced. I was among those who celebrated, took pictures of friends who were able to apply for a marriage license with their partners, and cried like a baby at weddings. The fact that our courts ruled the ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional meant victory not only for civil and LGBT rights, but also for my work at the AIDS Project of Central Iowa, an agency near and dear to my heart since 2001.
I just didn't know how much yet.
When the Iowa HIV Anti-Stigma Alliance formed in May 2009, its purpose was to develop effective solutions to barriers and inequities that prevent Iowans impacted by HIV stigma from participating fully and equally in all aspects of life. Part of our strategy was to create a campaign that could be replicated in multiple areas around the state. In my area, Des Moines, we recruited local leaders to participate in a media campaign that stated their individual responses to the tag line "HIV won't stop me..."
HIV won't stop me from being the best mom I can be. HIV won't stop me from making a new friend.
And the point of controversy, unbeknownst at the inception of this campaign: HIV won't stop me from shaking hands with my constituents. Our brilliant spokespersons were brave PLWAs willing to put a face on HIV, local and state politicians, children, CEOs, doctors, and columnists. Whether HIV positive or HIV negative, they are your neighbors, family, service providers, and friends.
HIV is not the sum of who they are.
We are so very proud of our campaign, the first of its kind in Iowa. One of our spokespersons was State Senator Matt McCoy. Incidentally, Matt is up for re-election and happened to have a very vocal opponent to gay marriage running against him. When the election campaign began, his opponent made numerous mention of Matt's involvement in the Iowa HIV Anti-Stigma Campaign. In the messy aftermath that followed, many colorful opinions were submitted about HIV, transmission of the disease, and the stigma that surrounds it. In the end, Matt's comment about his involvement in the campaign and questions surrounding his HIV status were summed up eloquently: "We don't care if people think we do or don't," he said. "The point is we're just about de-stigmatizing this disease, and ultimately creating conversation and awareness about it."
No one asked about the HIV statuses of the kids in the campaign, or the CEOs, or our other spokespersons. My point is, could the conversation in the community have been as open with such a range of opinions and emotion, had it not been for that opponent? And to look further past just the political implications of running for re-election, could people responding to the campaign have had such passionate responses had it not been for the whirlwind of Iowa finally legalizing gay marriage?
Don't get me wrong. The Iowa HIV Anti-Stigma Campaign is not solely about gay marriage. HIV is not solely a gay disease. However, the community is primed to impart opinions regarding this issue in whatever way speaks to its most vocal members. And the conversation, at this time, is holding its breath until the outcome of our elections and whether or not the ruling for gay marriage will stand.
For my part, I hope it does. The Iowa HIV Anti-Stigma Campaign's victory is getting the conversation started, regardless of how ugly or as heated it becomes. The hard work follows afterward with education, opportunities to increase awareness, and compassion for those who fall prey to stigma. I have faith that my community will figure it out in the end.
Rhea Van Broklin is the Program/Community Relations Director for AIDS Project of Central Iowa.