Fear and vulnerability: These are two words that come to my mind whenever someone mentions the terms HIV or AIDS. For so long, the fact that anyone had to live with AIDS seemed foreign to me, distant and certainly not my issue. I’m not an intravenous drug user nor am I particularly sexually active. To my knowledge, STDs of any kind were reserved to drug addicts, practicing homosexuals, “I.V. whores” and fraternity “studs” so, naturally, I thought that everyone I knew personally, as well as myself, was unaffected. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone is affected by HIV/AIDS in some form or another and no one is immune.
My narrow-mindedness came to a sobering end two years ago when I was helping a woman sew a memorial quilt for those who lost their lives from AIDS. She seemed like any other middle-aged woman. She appeared friendly, conservative and mild-mannered. In fact, after having spoken to her for a period of time, she reminded me of my mother. After sewing and chatting for about a half hour she told me about all of the victims of AIDS that she had come in contact with and revealed that she was HIV positive. I didn’t think anything negative about her afterward; however, I assumed that she might be a lesbian… as if there were actually a correlation between lesbianism and HIV susceptibility. Then she proceeded to tell me about her life and how much she valued her children. Stunned by the fact that someone so generous yet so common could have HIV, I accidentally pricked myself with the very needle she handed me and suddenly those very words I had mentioned earlier, fear and vulnerability, emerged from within me. Not only was I afraid for the woman’s life, but I also realized that everyone is vulnerable to HIV/AIDS regardless of whether he or she is a direct victim or not. For that split second, I was just as likely to be HIV positive as anyone else. As a result, I had to let go of all of the stereotypes and preconceived notions about HIV and AIDS. A virus isn’t a living thing. It has no prejudice and makes no distinction between young and old, rich and poor, or gay and straight. Anyone could be a potential candidate to be its host and there are approximately 40 million of them living worldwide, of which 80 percent were infected by means of heterosexual intercourse.
Given such startling statistics, one would think those citizens of an educated and rational society like our own, fed by mass media that continuously promotes safe sex, would take this message to heart. Unfortunately, it is apparent that many of us still consider HIV/AIDS as exclusively a gay, ethnic minority and low-income disease. Through quick observation of the lack of all three categories at this university, we feel that it is reasonably safe to practice unsafe sex – especially in the heat of the moment. I can’t count how many times my friends, all of whom are straight, have told me that they don’t practice safe sex on a regular basis and justified passionate thoughtlessness by affirming their heterosexuality as if HIV really cared about who it infected. Once again, HIV doesn’t give a damn about your race, social class or sexual preference. Everyone, regardless of background or identity, should take the initiative in protecting himself or herself against HIV and in educating others to follow suit.
It is for this reason that I thank the students, faculty members and staff members who joined us on the Women’s Center Lawn to remember the lives lost due to AIDS and those who continue to struggle with it in observation of World AIDS Day. It was a positive opportunity to recognize our vulnerability to this worldwide epidemic and overcome our fear together.
Toney Henry is a senior global studies and French major.