I am not a black woman living with HIV, so I have no way of knowing what it was like to be Cicely Bolden, the 28-year-old woman who was stabbed to death by her sexual partner, Larry Dunn Jr., after she disclosed her HIV status to him in early September. Like me, many others have no way of understanding Cicely's life, yet they have seen themselves fit to pass judgment on her. Because I have very little intersection with Cicely's lived experience, all I have to rely on to relate to her is my imagination. I ask that each of you, regardless of status, join me in my exercise of imagination as you read this piece.
I can't imagine what it is like to be faced with my own mortality in the midst of a sexual connection with someone else. But I can imagine what it is like to want to be loved, and to seek validation and comfort in another person. I can't imagine the supreme anger that it took to murder another person, but I can imagine Cicely's fear of revelation, her hope for love and her courage to tell.
Unfortunately, in the absence of empathy, people have reacted to the timeline of this story with a nearsighted lack of compassion. The flurry of headlines (such as one, two and three) that came out in the wake of Cicely's murder branded Cicely the guilty party. In this miscalculated equation, the revelation of her status -- not the stigma, the hatred or the knife -- was the driving force behind the murder. Few bothered to recognize that it was the knife-wielding sexual partner who took Cicely's life. Her life was an afterthought; it was as though she were considered already dead due to her HIV status. They chose to read the timeline as reality without nuance, a situation that befell a woman without complexity. She was a woman with a "dangerous" disease, a black woman of questionable worth -- insignificant to the goings-on of most people's lives anyway, and a leper whose death was met with little regret outside of the HIV community. All of the questions this should've raised, all the qualms this should've surfaced, all the full-throated roars this should've inspired -- gone with the wind.
Two-sided debates about the way we treat women -- specifically black women -- and those infected with HIV were crudely replaced with one-sided press releases and ignorant comments severely lacking in thought. Even in the humble comment section of TheBody.com, there was a comment that unearthed everyone's least favorite -- and most problematic -- HIV metaphor. One commenter, who gave the name "Sun," writes, and I cringe as I copy and paste these words, "Why are you not adding the fact this woman Cicely seduced this man knowing she is infected with a life altering disease HIV 'A GUN' loaded then she used the gun and shot to kill on purpose." Sun then continues to explain that the devil targeted Cicely (yet, somehow, HIV is still a loaded gun, even though it was given to her by the devil), and that she should've turned to God -- but that, thankfully, her children still have the chance to repent on Cicely's behalf.
Some people, like Sun, do not seem to realize that Jesus did not have the luxury of being able to throw the Bible at people. He was guided along his path by a simple rule of compassion that told him he should hang out with those on the margins of his society -- sex workers, lepers and the like. In Jesus' time, leprosy was a disease with a terrible stigma, often contracted sexually, that often led people with leprosy sores to be considered morally deficient outcasts. That sounds mighty familiar to me. In fact, I don't even have to imagine what such a disease might look like, because it rings so true to our contemporary HIV epidemic climate.
Has it became easier for any of you, regardless of how you felt about Cicely before, to imagine the mounting difficulties that Cicely had to endure? In the spirit of imagination, perhaps we can imagine what it is like to be so mad at someone that we would resort to stabbing them in cold blood. Can you imagine taking someone's life in anger? My imagination fails me there. Yet, so many find it easier to side with Mr. Dunn, when Cicely was an innocent woman trying to navigate the murky waters of being positive and find love. She may have made a misstep, but it's hard to know which way to go when navigating dark waters the first time.
When I read Cicely's story, I recognize the desire to be loved, the fear of rejection, the timidity that comes from being someone from a marginalized community, and the human desire to share the truth with the person you love. What do other readers bring to the story when they read it? For some, they bring their real lived experiences. For some, their biases and fears. Do they bring their hearts and their compassion? Perhaps if we all brought our hearts to this story, we might see a scenario full of loss, a lose-lose situation. We might see the unnecessary death, or the fall that a woman unknowingly took down the rabbit hole of ignorance and hatred.
Imagine with me, finally, a shift in consciousness in our own communities -- any community of which you feel you are a part. Could Cicely's death bring us all, regardless of status, the chance to discuss more fruitfully, more lovingly the way we treat people -- people of color, women, people living with HIV/AIDS and others -- with whom we have little in common, or of whom we know very little? Imagine that.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.