Melanie Haskin Reese, 60, tells Housing Works why she's headed to D.C. for the We Can End AIDS march on July 24th and why she's working overtime to sign up Baltimorians to get on the bus with her.
Why is it important to you to travel to D.C. for the We Can End AIDS march?
If you don't address the underlying human rights issues you can't end AIDS. That needs to be on the front pages again and dealt with on a national and global level and not just for the week of the conference. If everybody gets involved and people see huge numbers from all walks of life -- nationalities, races and economic stratums -- at the march, I believe it will increase everyone's commitment, and we can get AIDS to zero. Zero new infections. Zero stigma and discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths. Baltimore has 86% of the HIV infections in the state of Maryland and our presence at the march needs to be monumental and I've been working to get the word out. I tell people, I had brain surgery in 2010 and have to use a walker, and I'll sit down when I need to sit down, but I'm going to march. I would drag myself or crawl there to participate.
Why do you think the HIV epidemic isn't more visible already in Baltimore?
I think because HIV affects so many poor and disenfranchised people it does not get the media attention it deserves, and because of the stigma. We're thirty-one years into the epidemic and there is still so much stigma, discrimination and judgment. If people felt safe and secure disclosing, everyone would see that HIV and AIDS is not as far away as you think. They would see it's in their family, their neighborhood, their church and their place of work and then they would help eradicate it. I'm HIV positive and I'm using my voice to educate all around Baltimore.
How did you get involved in AIDS advocacy work?
I grew up in San Francisco and was living there when it was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. I prayed for those who had it, but it didn't affect me or the people I knew, and I didn't get involved. I tested positive for HIV in 2002 at a Red Cross blood drive and I thought, well, I didn't get involved then, but God has other plans for me. And I went full force. Now I'm chairwoman of LifeLinc, a regional coalition of persons living with HIV and AIDS and other concerned citizens that advocates for the resources needed to fight the epidemic in Maryland at the local, state and federal level. I'm also on the HIV Health Services Planning Council that plans how to distribute Ryan White funds based on need. Recently I went up to Annapolis to testify against passage of a law that would change knowingly infecting someone with HIV from a misdemeanor to a felony. I was infected with HIV as a rape victim, so I know the devastation of having it be out of your control, but it shouldn't even be a misdemeanor. It perpetuates fear and stigma around HIV and makes people afraid of getting tested.
What are the biggest issues people with HIV face in your area?
Currently I'm working to make sure Ryan White stays fully funded as we transition into the Affordable Care Act reform, so there aren't gaps and people with HIV keep the comprehensive support services they need, including the transportation and stable housing that helps them stay in care. Also, there have been a lot of funding cuts in these economic times, but we need to fight to increase appropriations for HIV. But in Baltimore, when you live on a street where 75% of the houses are boarded up, maybe you don't get involved and you're not proactive about getting the funding you need for your health because you think it's futile. So I'm getting people on the bus so they can see it isn't. I'm telling people they have to march, and if they don't think they can explain why they need the day off to their employer, to let me know and I will go in and explain for them.
The march's five branches, of thousands each, will disembark from separate points across Capital Hill at noon on July 24th, flooding downtown Washington with shouts of "end AIDS now" as policy makers sit in their offices looking on, before all five converge at the gates of the White House in what could be one of the largest political actions of the decade. Sign up today at Wecanendaids.org.