Some Stars Shine Brighter on the Ground
A Conversation with Community Educator and Activist Cathy Elliott-Olufs
Text & Photos by Sean Black
After ascending a maze of narrow roads signature to the Hollywood Hills, I am greeted by a rosy and familiar face. A slight tilt of her head reveals a cell phone beneath her shiny ginger locks as she splays her free hand in a welcoming gesture. “Almost done,” she silently mouths.
Cathy Elliott-Olufs was my media contact for the 20th Annual Divas Simply Singing! event this past October and she ignited my attention when she announced from a glittery stage, along with several other courageous women hand-in-hand, that she was HIV-positive.
The touching nature of this moment quite frankly caught me a little off guard amid the amazing efforts of those stars of legendary musical and entertainment proportions. The celebrities were the draw but yet these women had just as much starpower. It is difficult enough disclosing your HIV status one-on-one let alone shouting it out from a stage in front of hundreds of people, including a plethora of media.
But was I forgetting about those other, more recognizable stars? “Absolutely Not!” I answered, borrowing title lyrics from dance diva Deborah Cox, who was in attendance. It was simply the fact that the long-running charitable extravaganza’s founder Sheryl Lee Ralph strategically blended “Simply Singing” with “Simply Inspiring” by unabashedly placing faces on this cause smack in the center of the evening’s lineup. Cathy and her positive sisters became beacons in the night of a more universally identifiable kind.
Cutting short her business call to accommodate my twenty-minute-early arrival, I now had this non-celeb celestial all to myself for an entire afternoon.
Living Vibrantly with HIV
“We’re getting closer,” she acknowledges, referring to recent advancements in immune-based therapies and other non-antiretroviral-based treatment modalities. Cathy, forty-six, has been living vibrantly with HIV since her diagnosis in early 1995. Besides openly admitting to “enhancing” her naturally fiery-red mane, Cathy dreams of a day when HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past. She continues, “While I may not see the benefit myself of a functional cure in my lifetime, I think researchers are making tremendous progress.”
Hoping there will be a cure for her as well, I listen as my new friend continues, “There’s some small but elusive piece of the HIV puzzle out there waiting to be discovered.” Perking up she asserts, “I really believe it’s just a matter of time before we figure out a way to completely de-activate the virus.”
It is this level of optimism that keeps Cathy excited about the eradication of HIV. Her determination keeps her constantly involved in a variety of organizations working to address the issues surrounding this disease. A cofounder of the AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition (ATAC), where she most recently served as its acting executive director, Cathy has been on the forefront of U.S.-based treatment activism.
“ATAC members know that by keeping up community-level activism for HIV research, those who came before us will be remembered for their struggles and those who have the disease today will benefit from continued advances in treatments,” she notes. Cathy couldn’t be anymore sincere when she says, “Ultimately I hunger for the day when future generations will be rid of HIV.”
Magic Followed by Mourning
Besides being a crusader for treatment, Cathy has also been active in a number of other organizations in and around the L.A. area, including the Center for Health Justice where she has worked for the past six years to reduce stigma and to increase access to HIV information and support for incarcerated individuals. Not only a press contact, Cathy is also an advisor to The DIVA Foundation, led by entertainer and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph.
“What a magical evening that was,” referring to the night we first met. “I love Sheryl Lee Ralph! She is such an amazing woman and really cares about the community. “Sheryl really ‘gets it’ [referring to HIV].”
On a sadder note, backstage at this year’s event Cathy had the bittersweet fortune of speaking with R&B powerhouse Teena Marie, who passed in December from apparently natural causes. “I was so shocked to hear about her death, she was my idol when I was younger; I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet her before her untimely death.”
Obviously saddened by the turn in our conversation Cathy gracefully switches gears. “How ’bout some coffee?” I follow the young Ann-Margret look-a-like into a beautifully crafted gourmet kitchen and hover over her as she shovels out the Folgers. My kind of gal, I thought. Cozying up to a shiny table set for eight, I began to take in the bubbling aroma and a killer skyline view.
Two words of equally sweet proportions ensued: “Splenda” (for my coffee) and “ThreePozGals,” one of Cathy’s more recent social endeavors. “There wasn’t a lot out there in the L.A. area for the HIV-positive straight community in terms of open and supportive dating networks, so me and two other HIV-positive girlfriends decided to get together and throw some parties to see if people would come out…and they did. In droves.”
Their signature annual Valentine’s event, Straight From the Heart, draws several hundred HIV-positive straight-identified men and women from as far away as the East Coast each February for a weekend of fun, socializing, and frolic. “It’s a way for poz heteros to feel like they’re part of a community,” she says.
The now infamous Lingerie Fashion Show is her favorite part of the evening. “We get male and female volunteers from the audience to model pajamas and nighties—it’s hilarious and a lot of fun. It’s all about affirming ourselves and our sexuality.”
Breaking on this empowering note for some “off-the-record” chitchat, an impromptu photo session involving a tire-swing, and a graciously intimate home tour, Cathy began to burn a hot spot in my heart. “You’ve got to see the view from my office,” she brags. And rightfully so, the unobstructed view of the Hollywood sign practically casts its shadow over Cathy’s dell and into her cozy working digs flanked by trophies, awards of recognition, and touching memorabilia. A portrait of her as a little girl hits me like a ton of bricks. Stuffed animals, snapshots from her younger days as a precocious baton twirler, a precisely arranged shot glass collection of her many travels talking about HIV, and a treasured photo of her and her father at her college graduation all clue me in to the depth of this incredibly sentimental woman.
Meeting Herself Halfway
“You don’t know what you don’t know until you know.” This is Cathy’s favorite saying, and she bashfully admits to how true it became when she decided to return to school in 2002.
To say that Cathy believes in education is an understatement of grand proportions. She is a former tenth-grade dropout who received her MA in organizational management in 2009 from Antioch University, a Southern California university heavily geared towards social justice issues. Her decision to go back to school was a direct result of her HIV activism.
In 2000, as a budding treatment advocate, she received a community scholarship to attend CROI, a scientific conference on retroviruses and opportunistic infections. Innocently she chose the “basic” science track. She looks back and laughs, “I was thinking ‘basic’ as in Biology 101, and boy was I wrong. It was ‘basic’ as in ‘Petri dish.’ Topics like virology, molecular epidemiology, pathogenesis and so on. I knew then that if I wanted to be successful in understanding HIV treatment and research, I needed to meet myself halfway—so I began my journey by enrolling in community college,” she says. “I can honestly say that going back to school was the hardest, yet the best thing I could have ever done for myself and my career. I loved the experience of learning and being able to incorporate that new knowledge into my HIV work.”
In what little spare time Cathy can find she enjoys making jewelry and painting. After a period of darkness, when Cathy decided to deal with her positive status in the late nineties, she became involved in Women Alive, an organization that provides resources for women with HIV and AIDS, and started an arts and crafts group as a therapeutic and creative outlet for open dialogue among her female peers. “We channeled our energies in positive ways and made beautiful things. But most importantly we talked.”
Cathy Elliott-Olufs isn’t afraid of talking openly about HIV/AIDS. She is a woman fiercely dedicated to providing education and support to both those at-risk and those already infected. She lends a powerful voice to the underrepresented and begs us to tenaciously fight the debilitating stigmas surrounding this pandemic. Her transformational journey is one of hope, courage, and unflagging persistence in taking aim against the specter of AIDS. Cathy may not be a movie star but she is a superstar, shining brightly right here on the ground.
Illuminated by a setting sun she radiates golden light. Asked what’s next for Cathy, she answers, “I’m itching to spread my wings a bit.”
Hardly shaken by her bountiful zeal, I counter with an inquisitive stare. She coyly smirks and tosses out a teaser. “Check back with me next year.”
For more information about Three Poz Gals, visit www.threepozgals.net. Special thanks to Cathy for her generous gifts of glowing mind and twinkling spirit.
Sean Black reported on Divas Simply Singing! for the December 2010 issue.