A Hug and a Tweet: My Empowerment Moment
I was born as an HIV/AIDS activist at the first National HIV Criminalization Conference, which took place at Grinnell College in Iowa, June 2-5, 2014. At the time, I said this about my experience:
Attending the HIV Is Not a Crime conference was a transformative experience for me. The conference brought together courageous people directly impacted by stigma and discrimination because of their HIV status, and that was life changing. I especially appreciated the voices of powerful women and our transgender sisters and brothers who shared their life stories during the conference; I take with their strengths and resiliency with me as I continued to fight against unjust criminal laws in our communities.
The activists that gave me life were mostly black folks, activists such as Deon Haywood who leads Women With a Vision, Inc., and deals with human rights in a way I have never witnessed before, or the incredible Kerry Thomas, who's currently serving 30 years of an unjust sentence because of statutes that deprive us of our basic human rights. Despite that, Kerry has become one of the more visible activists in our movement. The lessons also came from many more who set the tone for what is now a social justice movement.
The first lesson they taught me is that people of color (POC) activists don't have the luxury of a second chance: It is all or nothing for us. For POC activists and/or organizations, there's no mechanism in place within the LGBT movement to be caught if you're in a free fall. There are efforts by other POC folks to help, but their resources aren't enough, and the establishment is too busy with weddings to see that others are suffering. So, we can't be late to the table because, if you are, you're out. It was with those premises that I started doing activism as a person living with HIV.
My moment took place at the HIV is not a Crime II Training Academy, this time taking place in Huntsville, Alabama, and it was all about the love and solidarity of my colleagues in the HIV/AIDS movement.
2015 was the most difficult and contrasting year of my life so far. On one hand, my documentary El Canto del Colibrí had been well received; therefore, I needed to be there every step of the way because, for new POC filmmakers, it is also all or nothing. Then, the death of my father, my uncle and my cat Kafka, who shared all 16 years of his life with me, proved to be devastating and, to this day, I don't know if I'm going to make it. The complexities of HIV/AIDS and mental health are monumental, and the help out there is completely inadequate -- and then there is the stigma.
So, at the conference I was busy and wasn't sharing my issues with anyone because, along with longtime activist Gonzalo Aburto, I was coordinating the attendance of the Mexican delegation. We had the honor to welcome Paty Ponce, Manolo Arellano and Liz Chanel Guerra -- people whose contributions to the fight against HIV criminalization in Mexico are relevant, and I wanted to make sure their visit and experience at the conference were good ones. So, I had the idea to create an altar during our conference and give a reception for them as we put the altar up; it was beautiful!! All this the night before my participation in the first plenary of the conference. Finishing with such a busy day and prepping for the plenary kept me up late, and what you expected happened: I overslept! I didn't heard my alarm at all, but the text messages of my colleagues woke me up to the realization that my plenary was in session.
The title of our plenary was "How We Commit to Lead: Meaningfully Involving Communities Most Impacted and Using People-First Language." I was to talk about the importance of the Denver Principles in our practice with people living with HIV networks and about the sense of empowerment we experience -- in my case with the still new and emerging Venas Abiertas: A Network of Immigrants Living With HIV/AIDS -- by engaging in collective advocacy to demand our rights and counter AIDS-related stigma. The people presenting with me that morning were Ken Pinkela, Tiommi Luckett and Cris Sardina, and it was moderated by Naina Devi -- folks that work so hard to end HIV/AIDS criminalization in the U.S. and the world. I jumped off my bed and like a mad man and asked Tami Haught, an incredible Iowa HIV activist and conference coordinator to please rush me to the auditorium. I remember that my beloved friend and colleague at Lambda Legal, Scott Schoettes, rode with me, encouraged me, fixed my shirt and hair and sent me to where my presentation was already in progress. I will never forget, because my moment was hearing people clapping and welcoming our session. I remember that I purposely looked at their faces because I wanted to connect with them and not just rush to the stage. As I joined my colleagues, Naina introduced me, and I got the mic in my hands and the thing is -- do you remember Will from Will and Grace, and how every time he speaks into a mic, he would melt so to speak and never do a good job? Well, that's me, I am a #mess at speaking in public.
I apologized for being late without dwelling on it too much because a friend taught me to apologize deliberately and honestly, but quickly. As Naina introduced me and I started talking, she placed her hand on my shoulder and squeezed a little, so this feeling of acceptance and understanding and courage came over me, and when I looked to the other side, in the light, the smiles of Cris, Tiommi and Ken were essential for me to continue. Somehow, I was able to deliver a message that I actually cannot remember a word of to this day. For me, that morning was all about my innate fear of disappointing people and the fact that, as immigrant activists living with HIV, while we have great moments of accomplishments and solidarity with our communities, we are also very fragile and must build up strength and exercise resilience, as we are always against the current: a contracorriente.
As the plenary ended, I rushed to say hello to the Mexican delegation and went back to my room because I needed to shower and to process such a crazy morning. I got into my room at the University of Alabama dorms, and a tweet was in my notifications. As I read it, tears started to come down my cheeks, and I just lost it, crying like those babies on the airplane that don't understand why they have been so long in those seats. I think that all the emotions of the past few months inundated me. This was the tweet by my beloved New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, which gave me love. I love the sex workers community, and I knew my friend Janet wrote it; it meant so much to me!
To deal with HIV/AIDS on a daily basis can be such a mental health burden at times. Trauma and stigma bring tremendous stresses to our lives, but can you imagine also dealing with the knowledge that, at any moment, due to the existence of irrational and inhumane laws, you could go to jail just because of your status?
The movement to end the criminalization of people living with exists because we have risen and because we cannot allow such injustices, ever. The movement is strong, and the strength comes from the people in it. Activists living with HIV in the movement support each other and love each other. I am not saying we're perfect because racism is powerful, but we have made great progress, and it is the solidary and the unspeakable kindness in our movement that keep us going. So, as we celebrate World AIDS Day, I can honestly say that, in doing HIV/AIDS activism, I stand on the shoulders of giants.
Marco Castro-Bojorquez is a filmmaker, community educator, activist and founder of Venas Abiertas (Open Veins), a network of Latinx immigrant people living with HIV, as well as a member of the People Living With HIV Caucus steering committee.