HIV-positive youth stopped by UConn’s Bookstore Community Room to share their deeply personal experiences with the condition to a crowd of students and activists on Feb. 20.
The Student Global AIDS campaign and Partners in Health Engage, a global health organization on campus, hosted four speakers from the Youth Stop AIDS US Tour to shed light on the importance of HIV and AIDS advocacy.
The crowd of students and activists filled the Community Room to hear from the HIV-positive youth: Horcelie Sinda, 22-year-old woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo born with HIV; Krishen Samuel, a speech-language pathologist from South Africa diagnosed with HIV at 22; Jawanza Williams, a Black socialist and community organizer from Beaumont, Texas; and Robbie Lawlor, a 27-year-old diagnosed with HIV in 2012 from Dublin, Ireland.
Emily Sanderson, National Organizer for the Student Global AIDS Campaign, reminded the audience that the HIV and AIDS epidemic is on the path of ending, but needs help from everyone to keep it that way.
The speakers emphasized this point as they shared their stories.
“I am just one young voice who is seriously pissed off at the world,” Lawlor said.
Within two seconds of a HIV diagnosis, Lawlor’s life completely turned. His dream of working with animals in Australia was immediately crushed as a result of the country’s law preventing HIV-positive individuals from obtaining a residency visa. Little did he know, this would only be one obstacle he would face due to the diagnosis.
Lawlor had to go through multiple health scares and four different medications for HIV, which yielded numerous side effects on his body, before finding a successful form of medication on his fifth trial.
Not everyone has this opportunity.
Sinda highlighted that the stigma that surrounds HIV in the Congo makes it especially challenging for people to receive support and medication, if diagnosed. It was when Sinda moved to London that she learned that she was born with HIV.
At the tender age of 11, she started to take strong medications to treat her condition. Like Lawlor, the medications yielded side effects, particularly on Sinda’s skin. Unfortunately, this made Sinda the subject of ridicule from those who did not know about her diagnosis.
“I remember going to church and a lot of people would say ‘Oh, what’s that on her skin?,’ Sinda said. “I know this cream that she could try. Give her this, give her that. Basically it was a whole list of creams that I could try. I tried a lot of them. They just didn’t work.”
Sinda also described the challenges of dating as someone with HIV.
The day after Sinda kissed her boyfriend, he called her and asked if he “caught something.” “I just froze,” Sinda explained.
Williams expanded on the topic of HIV and relationships in his artistic portrayal of his story.
“Have you ever had a sort of déjà vu that paralyzes you and makes your knees weak? And your heart sink into the back of your throat?” Williams asked the crowd.
In a poetic and emotional fashion, Williams shared examples of the many homophobic and AIDS-related comments his closest relatives directed towards him as a child, prior to his diagnosis.
“‘Faggot. That’s why you’ll get AIDS.’ Seven-years-old. Eight. Nine. Ten years,” Williams said recalling the comments that left an imprint on his heart. “I hope you get AIDS,” Williams’ brother once said.
After college, Williams’ boyfriend of four years left him, and Williams struggled to find a job. Many of his friends chose drugs instead of their friendship.
Not too long after that, his now ex-boyfriend called him and said “get tested.”
Hesitantly, Williams got tested and his results came back positive. Williams no longer saw the point in living. He planned to commit suicide, until he looked outside where he saw a dawn on a gray day and his family coming home. He decided not to follow through because his diagnosis was not worth dying over.
The connection to family is also what helped Samuel through his diagnosis of HIV.
Coming from South Africa, the country with the world’s largest HIV epidemic, Samuel was constantly reminded the dangers of the disease.
Samuel recalled a game he played as a student in Cape Town to demonstrate the high numbers of HIV infection in South Africa.
“Students were allocated either a card with a plus sign on it or a minus sign on it… I was allocated a card with a plus sign on it,” Samuel said. “I decided to hold on to the card with the plus sign on it just as a reminder that I did not want to become another statistic.”
In an effort to be cautious, Samuel took eight HIV tests in 2008. Each test brought about anxiety but he was ultimately relieved to get negative results.
In 2009, Samuel went for a standard checkup after his fears of contracting the disease abated. Unfortunately, this test was different than his other. His HIV test came back positive.
While Samuel’s family was initially taken aback by the announcement of his diagnosis, they eventually showed him love and support.
“I, Krishen, take you, HIV, to be my lawfully wedded virus. To have and to hold from this day on. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer,” Samuel stated. “Until death do us part.”
The power of emotion connected the audience members to the speakers in a way that made it personal for everyone.
Margaux Amara, eight-semester molecular and cellular biology major and human rights minor said the talk personalized the HIV/AIDS epidemic for her.
“I’ve wanted to put a face and stories to the global epidemic and the struggle and pain of HIV/AIDS for so long on this campus,” Amara said. “I am so happy they volunteered their time to give us these incredible stories so we can actually feel what they feel and really understand the gravity of the situation.”
Sanderson ended the event by informing the audience of current actions that government is taking in regards to the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
“President Trump released a budget last Monday and wants to cut over $1 billion from the U.S. Fund for the Global AIDS Response… It doesn’t make sense,” Sanderson said. She continued to list ways individuals can help such as calling senators, emailing newspapers and informing people that HIV/AIDS is an important subject.
“We have to build power together, as young people in the United States, to make our senators and representatives take action,” Sanderson said.
Jamiah Bennett is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.