[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n April, I participated in AIDSWatch, the largest annual national constituent-based advocacy event focused on HIV and AIDS in the United States. AIDSWatch is a partnership of the Treatment Access Expansion Project, AIDS United, and the US People Living with HIV Caucus; it draws hundreds of HIV-positive advocates and their allies to Washington, D.C., to educate members of Congress and their staff about HIV and AIDS. All participants of AIDSWatch are provided with training on current science, legislative agendas, and conducting effective meetings with their elected representatives before they step foot in Congressional offices.
At the completion of the most recent event, I sit here in the hotel with the realization that so many individuals are passionate about many of the same things. One of those things is the inclusion of Comprehensive Sex Education in schools.
Why is this so important to me and many others? Well, growing up in a small farm town in Kansas, where sexual education was lacking, definitely did not help in preventing my diagnosis. Sex was considered taboo in our town, and if you were participating in even the discussion of it you were looked down upon. I even remember having to get a note, signed by our parents, just to attend an anatomy and physiology session that discussed mostly the anatomy and barely touched on sexual health. Even then, the only thing I remember involving HIV was two sentences; one describing what the acronym stood for, and the other stating that it was an STD. That was my HIV and AIDS education in school. I also realize that even if I was educated well on the issue, I probably wouldn’t have paid attention to it.
Women didn’t have HIV or AIDS; at least that is what I thought. In fact, this is what many women still think. We don’t think otherwise because the faces of HIV and AIDS are men not women. Even after I was diagnosed I was confused. I had never heard of a woman having HIV, and if she did, it had to be because she was a prostitute or a drug user. That was the stigma I held even as a twenty-five-year-old adult, which is the same stigma that many women still hold today. When I was at AIDSWatch I heard another woman living with HIV describe how she did receive the education, she knew what HIV was and how it was contracted, and she also knew that she would never get it, but she was wrong. She thought she didn’t have to worry about it either because she knew she was not promiscuous, a drug user, or a gay man. It took me five years, even after my diagnosis, to realize that the stigma I had was wrong and that only happened because I attended a retreat for women living with HIV and AIDS.
Before I attended the retreat, I held many apprehensions. One of those apprehensions was that I was going to be the only woman with my story. I was wrong. I learned that there were many women with HIV, and not all of those women were former drug users, or prostitutes. In fact, the majority of the women I met were women who had contracted HIV from their spouses or significant others, which was exactly how I got it. How was this possible? And, how did I not know that this was even an issue for women? I did not have the answers then, but I was determined to figure it out, and change it.
After the retreat I became more involved in the HIV community, and openly told my story anywhere I could. I did this because I wanted every woman to know what I did not know until now. I wanted them to know that we are at risk even if we didn’t think we were. I wanted them to know that HIV did not discriminate. I had to educate any and every woman that would listen. I had to do something to change the stigma against HIV, and to give a face to the women living with HIV and AIDS. I had to do this because I knew there were other women just like me.
So, why do I believe Comprehensive Sex Education is needed? It is needed because one out of every five new diagnoses are youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. We need to educate our youth on HIV and AIDS before they reach this at-risk age; educate them so that when they are adults they can teach their children. Knowing the facts and being properly educated can eliminate future stigma and diagnosis of HIV. Only then will we begin the fight against further HIV and AIDS diagnoses, and begin the development of a good foundation that will ultimately lead to an AIDS-free generation.
Heather Arculeo, a positive woman since 2007, works to educate, advocate, and empower others to make a change because “change is possible even if the transformation seems impossible.” She wants to continue to make a difference in the HIV community because she is not only a peer, a mother, a sister, a wife, an aunt, and a daughter, but also an example to other women living with HIV.