Over the last few months, I’ve been able to serve as a consultant for the Interfaith America team working on HIV destigmatization, making community connections, offering context and history of HIV/AIDS activism and reengaging with my community of HIV/AIDS activists and scholars across the world.
To be honest, when I was first approached to serve in this role, I was quite nervous since I have not been directly involved in “the work” in a few years as my own professional and educational journey has taken various turns. But even at our first team meeting, I couldn’t contain how excited I was to be talking, engaging and bridging incredible people with incredible organizations. In these few months, I’ve learned that some things haven’t changed and there are other progress points that are worth celebrating.
Talk about it!
When I was working as the director of an LGBTQ campus center, I often had to navigate a tension when coordinating HIV/AIDS-related programming, support spaces or community partnerships. While I was (and continue to be) passionate about ending HIV infections and increasing access to healthcare for people living with HIV, I was cautioned by elders in the community and students that being so visible would equate HIV/AIDS with being gay. While this fear was well-intended, I was clear that if we didn’t talk about it, we would not end the disproportionate impact of this virus on our community and challenge the stigma of what it means to be a person living with HIV/AIDS.
In speaking with administrator and students from campuses that received Interfaith America grants, I heard similar echoes of what it means to talk about HIV/AIDS within interfaith and religious spaces and the fear of being labeled as other for their centering of this topic. Yet, I believe this is exactly where we need to be talking about HIV/AIDS, prevention strategies, sexual health practices, dismantling homo/bi/transphobia and also challenging stigma of what it means to be HIV positive and what it means to be a spiritual community that openly and directly centers these perspectives. As one student told me, “We need to get more people to talk about it. It’s that simple.” We need to create a shared language with our students, and colleagues that allows for people to have informed and enlightening conversations. While I enjoy an academic conference or panel (being the nerd that I am), I believe we need more informal spaces for people of all statuses to interact and cultivate community while centering the voices and experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS and engaging them in developing strategies for our organizations.