Let’s face AIDS together, as one community

Thursday is World AIDS Day, and this year’s campaign theme is “Facing AIDS.” The goal is that each person in our community join in facing AIDS together.

I share my personal story of living with HIV/AIDS in the hopes that it makes a difference for someone in our community on some level, whether it helps motivate a person to go to our Snohomish Health District to be tested, whether it helps a person who already knows that s/he is infected with HIV to embrace life regardless and participate actively in their own care and treatment, or whether it inspires a person who has their own different challenge to live life fully, gracefully and gratefully.

I contracted HIV as a Peace Corps volunteer during my service from 1991 to 1993 in Nigeria. I was serving as a Health Education volunteer as part of the Guinea Worm Disease Eradication Program. I was stationed in a central rural town, just north of Benue river, and partnered with my Nigerian colleagues to do outreach education to 31 villages.

I loved my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. The people I met of various ethnic tribes and religious beliefs were kind, hospitable, gracious, generous, resilient, and simply vibrant. The giddiness in my heart and the joy of my memories are by far paramount to the fact that I contracted the HIV virus during my service.

While I contracted HIV in a seemingly faraway land, I recognize that my personal story relates to our community here.

One, there is a real possibility that the person from whom my Nigerian boyfriend contracted the HIV virus was either a white American man, though he may have been a white man of European descent. We dated for the majority of my service. I was drawn to him because of his knowledge of world happenings, including current events that he learned through his self-described boldness of walking into an expensive hotel in Jos that catered to international guests, a boldness that said “Yes, I am a guest here,” and proceeding to watch CNN in their lounge.

He shared how he enjoyed taking opportunities to watch CNN whenever in Jos for business, as he liked knowing what was happening globally and liked knowing about American pop culture. This coming from a man whose home village was within the area I served as a volunteer, a rural area with buildings and homes made of mud walls, with dirt roads, with no running water or electricity.

He was a stoic, tall man with much dignity and pride both in his tribal heritage and his own developed intelligence and knowledege. Thinking back, he gave me a connection to my ol’ American culture that I still desired despite my love for what I was experiencing as a sole volunteer in rural Nigeria with no other volunteer within four to six hours — depending on the time of year, dry versus rainy season, dry roads versus muddy, rutted roads.

As our emotional intimacy grew, through sharing of personal stories I learned from him of a prior point in his own life wherein he engaged in unprotected sex with a “white” man who had intimidated him despite his desire not to have sex. My boyfriend was not a gay man, but rather a man who had one unprotected episode of sex with a man.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 3 million men who self-identify as straight secretly have sex with other men — putting their wives or girlfriends at risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. A New York City survey that appeared in the Sept. 19, 2006, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that nearly 1 in 10 men say they’re straight and have occasional sex with men. In addition, 70 percent of these men are heterosexually married. In fact, 10 percent of all married men in this survey reported engaging in same-sex behavior during the previous year.

Two, if not for a final mandatory testing following my Peace Corps service, I would not have known I was HIV-positive. I felt healthy, well, energetic. I sincerely thought the initial HIV-positive test results were wrong, that somehow my blood had been wrongly labeled. It was by being retested and confirmed to not only have the antibodies but also the antigen, that I took the first emotional step toward accepting my HIV-positive status.

I like to think that in late January 1994, when I moved to the Seattle area to obtain my graduate degree in social work at the University of Washington, that as I began to date and proceed into a monogamous relationship with physical intimacy that I would regardless have practiced safe sex, even if not for the testing that revealed my HIV status in December 1993. Yet, I honestly think that I would have thought I am not one of those with HIV for various ignorant reasons — I am not a gay man, I have never injected drugs, I am not promiscuous, I’ll only have unprotected sex in a relationship wherein we both agree to be monogamous. If I am truthful in my personal reflections, these messages to myself would have placed someone else at risk of my disease.

“One in five Americans living with HIV is not aware of their infection and (recent) research highlights the imperative of making sure people know their HIV status and getting those who do have HIV into care. All of us have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to know our status and reduce our risk. So on this National HIV Testing Day and every day, I encourage every American to join the fight against HIV/AIDS and get tested.”

— President Obama’s statement on National HIV Testing Day earlier this year

To me, my personal story highlights the global connectedness that exists. A Nigerian man possibly contracts HIV from a white man who traveled to his country. American woman contracts HIV from Nigerian man. American woman could have placed other Americans at risk if she did not know her status.

So, in our own community, what might be other ways that such a narrative may happen? Not unlike my service that took me to a faraway land, men and women through military service at our Naval station or through business trips with Boeing or other local businesses might sadly retell such a narrative.

Yet, I strongly do not want to give the impression that if a person does not travel or associate with someone who travels, that risk does not exist.

The message I would like to convey is that our community is globally interconnected and therefore each of us are at risk, regardless.

Knowing your personal status is the first step in our community coming together and facing AIDS together, uniting to crumble stigma and prevent further transmission in our community.

Stigma. A mark of shame or discredit. An identifying mark or characteristic.

How do I define Stigma? The creation of an “us versus them.” The isolation of a few, when in reality we are interconnected and interdependent. The lie that I am some how a better person because I do not have a particular disease. The lie that I am some how less than a person because I do have a particular disease.

I am a living testament that living with HIV is more than manageable. Those who know me know that HIV has not stopped me from living my life fully. I choose to defy the definitions of stigma. I am a mom to two bright teen sons whom I admire and I look forward to witnessing how each will contribute to our community at large because each shows so much promise. I am a social worker, and truly enjoy working with parents in the interest of their children and family. I am committed to doing volunteer work in our community because it’s an important priority in my life. And, finally, I love to dance and travel, passions that make my life more fulfilling.

My hope this World AIDS Day is that many step forward in our community in facing AIDS together by being tested at our Snohomish Health District (425-339-5298) to know their status, by talking openly about their choice in testing to help break down the stigma, and by becoming involved with advocacy for both HIV prevention and treatment in our community.

If you are HIV-free, consider volunteering in the HIV vaccine clinical trials through the collaboration between Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington.

I am facing AIDS because I love life so much!

Jeannine Fosca lives in Lake Stevens.

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