The United States Conference on AIDS hosted its 21st annual event last week in Northwest with nearly 3,000 in attendance, the most in the past three years.
Besides the push for racial and health equality among those in the HIV community, the “Family Reunion” theme encapsulates its importance among a divisive political climate and racism becoming more mainstream.
“Being here just reinforces me to continue and helps those in need,” said Helen E. Tuner, 70, of Dallas, who was unknowingly infected with the HIV infection by an ex-boyfriend 34 years ago. “There’s so much inequity and we don’t know it’s there. We need to open minds and make sure people have a voice in this fight.”
The conference at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, led by NMAC, formerly known as the National Minority AIDS Council, offers dozens of seminars and plenary sessions on the latest research, public policy and race. NMAC refocused its mission to lead with race to help those infected with HIV which stands for human immunodeficiency virus.
Although there currently is no cure for the disease, modern medicines can help keep it under control. The most severe phase of the virus is AIDS, which usually results in death within three years if not treated, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, attendees conversed on timely topics such as the Sept. 5 announcement from Spelman College to admit transgender female students to the all-women institution in Atlanta.
College president Mary Schmidt Campbell said in a letter that students who identify themselves as women will be permitted to enroll next year at the historically black school. However, whoever transitions to a male while at Spelman will still receive a degree.
Several transgender attendees at the AIDS conference applauded the news, including Evonne Terrie Kaho of Jackson, Mississippi, who said it was “great to hear” after a reporter informed her of the school’s decision.
“For the black community, we share some of the same type of discrimination where some people see us as the enemy,” said Cecilia Chung, senior director for strategic projects for Positively Trans, a national advocacy program for transgender people at the Transgender Law Center based in Oakland. “There are some schools that are coming around. It’s always good when the advocacy comes from the students versus the faculty themselves, so that is great for a school like Spelman to do.”
The conference featured high-profile speakers such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), who’s advocated for HIV/AIDS research for decades.
David R. Williams, a professor of public health and sociology at Harvard University, said daily discrimination creates health problems such as high blood pressure, inadequate diet and lack of sleep.
It’s even more detrimental for those with HIV to receive substandard treatment and medicine, especially for people of color, he said.
Williams presented a study showing that in 2015, the media black household earned 59 cents for every dollar the median white household earned — the same as in 1978.
“Most of my students think we have made a lot more progress in the United States,” he said. “The racial gap is wider today than when President Obama took office.”
The Black AIDS Institute of Los Angeles, established in 1999, held a lively two-hour session Thursday titled “Race, Class and Privilege.”
The recommendations offered to eradicate the HIV epidemic included:
• Listen to people who experience oppression;
• Acknowledge that privilege exists; and
• Map out where HIV services are available and provide them in urban neighborhoods.
The CDC estimates that one of two black gay men will acquire HIV in their lifetime.
Justin Woods, program coordinator for the institute and one of the discussion moderators, said the CDC said a person’s behavior or biology doesn’t explain the disproportionate impact HIV has on blacks.
“Race is not a risk factor — racism is,” he said.
The conference also highlighted collaborative projects and proposals on how to work with faith leaders.
The Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer of United Church of Christ in Cleveland suggested churches offer voluntary HIV testing during health seminars. He said leaders at his church participate and get tested.
“Let people know you got tested,” he said. “Lead by example.”