Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend AIDSWatch, the national HIV advocacy day in Washington DC. Hundreds of advocates came together from across the country to speak out on important policy issues related to HIV treatment and prevention. Attending was a really cool experience, both as a consumer and as a professional in HIV medical care.
The first day of AIDSWatch started with the opening ceremony, where Jesse Milan, CEO and President of AIDS United, welcomed us all to AIDSWatch and gave us a preview of what to expect during the event. During the opening ceremony, one man who spoke stood out in particular. He was adopted as a child and spoke about how one of his parents was very accepting of him being gay and the other not so much. This did not stop him from pursuing a career in politics and later advocating for those living with HIV. For a lot of people living with HIV, coping with the negative societal view of our sexual orientation (I am speaking from the perspective as a gay man) is our first barrier. Sometimes, some of us have to deal with this barrier and then the added hurdle of an HIV diagnosis. The person who spoke was a White person adopted by a Black Jamaican family when he was a child. I saw a lot of my story in him since I am also from a Caribbean background, which can be very homophobic. Luckily, our stories took a similar turn as both of my parents are accepting of my sexual orientation and of my HIV status. My HIV status led me to work in HIV management and prevention, and had me seated at AIDSWatch that day.
After the opening ceremony, we attended different educational workshops that were either topics specific to HIV or issues that intersect with HIV. I chose to attend three workshops that integrated my current experience and my potential career interests. I currently work at RAIN, an AIDS service organization in Charlotte, so the workshop discussing HIV stigma in the Deep South was very helpful. The research presented by Duke University examined internal and external stigma faced by people living with HIV. I reflected back on what it was like for me to navigate the healthcare system alone and I thought about what my clients experience now. I wondered if I was exhibiting any stigmatizing behavior towards my clients, and if I am, how do I become more of aware and how do I stop?
The next workshop I attended discussed HIV medical care access in Puerto Rico as a result of the hurricane and the US’s extremely slow response to rebuild the island. I am a native of the island, and luckily my family lives in the tourist regions — areas that are more likely to be rebuilt quicker. The representatives from Puerto Rico shared that a lot of people now do not have access to medical care and their prescriptions. A lot of people have been advised to go to the mainland in order to re-establish care while the island comes back together.
The last workshop I attended is a personal passion of mine: the decriminalization of sex work. HIV and sex work truly do intersect, especially in the context of HIV criminalization. There are reported cases of sex workers having their charges enhanced if the police learn they are living with HIV. A lot of my clients currently engage in sex work and I want them to be safe. Attending AIDSWATCH has granted me the opportunity to meet people who work to decriminalize sex work so that I can begin to work my way into becoming more supportive and engaged in this cause.
The following day, we met with the legislators on Capitol Hill. This year, AIDSWatch occurred during the congressional recess, so the majority of elected officials were not in DC, so we met with their health aides. The NC AIDS Action Network staff explained that it is better to meet with the aides because they tend to be more educated about HIV and will often advocate for our cause with the legislator after we are gone. The first few meetings were kind of scary, as they were with aides affiliated with conservative politicians. I was pleasantly surprised that they were very educated around HIV and also very supportive about our asks. I can only recall one meeting that did not go the way we wanted. The aide was nice, but very misinformed and required an HIV 101. Our legislative asks were a bit too “radical” for him.
I really recommend this type of experience for anyone who wants to learn how the government works. As a person living with HIV, it was very empowering to be able to speak in front of legislators, share my personal and professional story, and be around people who care about the HIV community. I plan to attend more events like AIDSWatch and build as much experience possible.
– Roberto Olmo-Bermudez
Data and Quality Specialist/ PrEP Counselor at RAIN