In many ways, I’ve always known I was different. Not different in the sense of being “special,” but different the way daisies are to roses. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, being a daisy amongst a field of roses was a terrifying thing, considering how hard the stereotypes and expectations of the “Bible Belt” South worked to keep its fields homogenous. Even though North Carolina has been more progressive than my home state, the same rules regarding standing-out were still in play.
Attending university provided me the opportunity to find the many ways in which being different could be self-serving while also helping to fulfill community needs. During my time volunteering at a domestic violence shelter and as a sexual assault advocate, I was enlightened about the positive roles male-identified individuals could take on in spaces meant to protect those who had suffered from predominantly male hands. Initially, while volunteering with a multicultural fashion show, I had the chance to see how differences in culture could be celebrated rather than exploited and simultaneously serve the community through fundraising and awareness building. The unexpected lesson for every audience member with the chance to attend, was that even with all of us being so different, co-existing could be a beautiful and uplifting experience for everyone when we keep the general understanding that we are all human in mind.
Unfortunately, these ventures were not enough to negate the rules of forced homogeneity society continues to face. Although the fashion organization urged the message that HIV is non-discriminatory in its host selection, some models and audience members remained unswayed in their view of LGBTQ individuals as incubators for a virus. My own encounters with medical centers around campus demonized my differences and sought ways to punish me for them. Where many taunt LGBTQ individuals as people with “flamboyant quirks,” the medical field had a knack for reducing identities and statuses into statistical anomalies that needed to be monitored and contained.
Luckily, before graduating, I started an expedited Social Work track, diverging from Psychology and Anthropology. Social Work felt strangely like home and the missing piece to a mosaic. My professors stressed the importance of acknowledging and working with the qualities unique to clients, both internal and external, while not losing sight of the fact that we are all human and should treat each with human decency. Lessons always encompassed compassion for the individual as well as the whole, the feedback loop that sustained the relationship between the two.
During my first year in the workforce, I was able to put my experiences to the test. While engaging in community forums and doing a blend of testing and counseling, I was able to work closely with a diverse team of case managers, nurses, nurse care managers, doctors, and other social workers in an effort to increase HIV awareness in niche communities and assist in reaching viral suppression for those already living with HIV. I was able to refine my idiosyncrasies in a way that allowed me to serve others and not lose any authenticity in the process.
Even with these accomplishments and having developed close ties to such amazing and driven people, I still had major lessons to learn. One of the key things I noticed was that it wasn’t the people with fancy titles or letters adorning their name that had the biggest impact on progress and community wellness. Rather, it was the unsung heroes with lived experience and active community ties that had the most significant influence and kept the heart of the community beating. Singular people with varying histories, but all blanketed and their voices rendered monotonous. As someone with the privilege of having higher education, I’ve felt that it is my duty to create room at the table for those who wouldn’t be considered for a seat due to lack of support, resources, or access.
I am thrilled and beyond grateful for the chance to elevate the voices of the unsung heroes across North Carolina in their fight for social, political, and healthcare equality. Together, our differences can bring forth common good. As Mother Theresa said, “You can do things I cannot. I can do things you cannot. Together, we can do great things.”
-De’Shea Coney, HepConnect Coordinator for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network