Gina Brown

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Photo by Jourdan Barnes with Demiur Photography for The Bach Group

The Well Project. Boom! Okay, c’mon now. That is a fabulous title for an organization. Right?!

…and my dear colleague Gina Brown, who works with the group, is even more fabulous!

We met years ago when I was conducting a seminar on “Age & HIV” in the Big Easy (New Orleans) where she was raised and still lives today. I mean, who in their sane mind would move from this luscious vibrant city? I…love… N’awlins. Oh my god, think rich Creole, smooth jazz (originally, Dixieland), eating those to-die-for beignets on Bourbon Street, Brennan’s for breakfast, and, naturally, Mardi Gras. I was a college student when I first loitered in those sardine-packed streets and like everyone else eagerly grabbing those iconic plastic beadeds they toss off the beyond-festive floats. I was with my new beau from Ohio State University, who turned out to be an alcoholic. That’s another story for another time.

Ms. Brown has been luminously living with HIV since 1994—twenty-seven

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

years. Gina has two grandchildren, who call her “GeeGee,” and two adult children. The woman enjoys having fun and has certainly turned struggle into success.

Ms. Brown’s life in a succinct capsule: molested from the age of five through seven by an older relative; addicted to crack for three years; lived on the streets for two years; the father of her kids was murdered; her brother was also murdered; and Gina acquired the virus through heterosexual sex, while she was pregnant with her daughter. Thankfully her daughter is not living with HIV.

Fortunately she’s turned tragedy into a life of service, benefiting others. Gina is the Community Engagement Manager with Southern AIDS Coalition, serves on the Black AIDS Institute Board of Directors and is Ambassador for the Greater Than AIDS Initiative, is a former member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), and, of course, sits on The Well Project Community Advisory Board. Whoa!

I can’t say enough about this brilliant woman, and I mean brilliant in many ways. She graduated cum laude from New Orleans Southern University with a bachelor in social work, minoring in history. Several years later she received a master’s in social work.

The public speaker and community advocate has lost many friends and a few relatives to the virus. With concerted and mindful effort, Gina has never been sick or been hospitalized. This spirited advocate’s mission is to keep an on-going discussion about the virus, tackling stigma head-on, and be transparent about her diagnosis.

Gina’s mantra is “I’m gonna ride this thing till the wheels fall off!,” and “Loving” is a word she uses to describe herself. This friend can vouch for that. In 2018, Gina came out as bisexual and had a girlfriend for a couple of years. Currently she’s a single and dotes on her grandsons. Gina’s son, Juan, is thirty-eight, seeking a job in social work, and Jamanii, her daughter, twenty-six, is working as a Community Health Worker. Seems her kids had a role model while growing up!

On a humid day in NO and a pretty sizzling day in L.A., Gina and I hobnob on the mobile. With our sizzling conversation, I think the telephone line was also on fire!

Capitol Rotunda in D.C., 2012 International AIDS Conference

Ruby Comer: You look mah-ve-lous! Gee, looking a bit like Erica Alexander from Living Single [a wide grin]. Right off the bat, sister, since we haven’t really discussed, I wanna know: your favorite sitcom, favorite film, and favorite diva.
Gina Brown: Well, whew, Ruby…Let’s see, Sanford and Son and Good Times. Okay, now film. Hmmm. The Hangover 1-3, Juice, Alice in Wonderland, and Malcolm X.

And diva?
[Gina shouts strongly with vibrato] Whitney Houston!

Oh Whitney. Beautiful soul. One of the grandest voices, well, ever! With all due respect, speaking of the deceased, what happens after we die, Gina?
We get to do it all over again!

Oh no! Tell me it ain’t so. I don’t want to go through this mess again. Say, when did you first hear about AIDS?
I first heard about it before they named it. It was called “gay plague” or GRID. I heard about it on the evening news. I had a friend who was same gender loving and I’d call him every day talking about this new disease that was killing “them.”

Take me back to when you learned of your diagnosis.
At my OB clinic they were doing “opt-out” testing, so they basically rolled it into the blood work they were already doing. I only agreed because it wasn’t a stand-alone test. Ruby…I received the call on April 1, 1994 and was told I needed to come back in because one of my blood tests came back with results, and they needed to discuss it with me. I went in on April 4, 1994 and a nurse at our Charity Hospital told me my diagnosis and said, “You have AIDS and you’re going to die.”

Of course, I was devastated. The first person I told was my mom and then my two sisters. [She breaks.] I was depressed for about five years, just waiting to die. I never blamed anyone else for my diagnosis and was not angry.

Then your daughter was born.
My daughter was born November 29, 1994. I was on the 076-research study that showed if a mom took AZT and gave it to the baby for six weeks it could keep the baby from contracting HIV.

With daughter, Jamanii, at Gina’s “HIV 25th Sero-versary Educational Celebration”

Fortunately. How did you broach the topic of the HIV pandemic with your kids?
I told my son when he was fourteen and it didn’t go well [Ms. Brown trails off in a low timbre then ends]…at first. Today, he’s my biggest champion. I told my daughter when she was seven. [I sneeze and instantly she utters, “Bless you.”] My children are amazing, Ruby, and they love me unconditionally. My two grandsons both know. I am very open with my status.

You are one upfront authentic gal. How do you keep yourself healthy?
I’m a spiritual person and rely on meditation and healing crystals a lot. I also take multivitamins, walk, drink lots of water, and try not to stress.

Cool. What do you do when depression crops up?
Cry and then call my sisters.

Good! Release followed by support. Say, living on the streets…how on god’s green earth did you survive?
This was the late eighties. I was on crack, and it was a horrible experience I’m sure. I was high most of the time. I remember walking the streets with The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my purse. I’d sit up at night and read by candlelight. After a man tried to kill me, I went to treatment. That was August 10, 1992.

Dates like that you don’t forget! Etched in your memory. Tell me specifically what you do at Southern AIDS Coalition.
I provide training opportunities for People Living with HIV in the South. I am the boots on the ground girl.

Living with HIV has taught me that I have so much love to give and that community that I’m a member of accepts that love and gives it right back to me.

How in the world do you deal with stigma in the conservative Bible Belt?!
I…stand…in…my…truth. I think it’s important for people to see me accepting me, which gives them permission to accept me too.

I love that. You make it simple. What has living with HIV taught you over these nearly three decades?
Living with HIV has taught me that I have so much love to give and that community that I’m a member of accepts that love and gives it right back to me.

You are an amazing woman! Who do you consider a hero in the AIDS War?
Dr. Gina Brown, who works at Gilead Sciences. She’s my “Shero,” Ruby. [She chuckles.]…and not just because we share a name, but because of the work she’s done on behalf of women living with HIV.

Kudos to both Ginas! Tell me, what’s the best thing about living in the Birthplace of Jazz?
The food and the people. Everyone’s so friendly, too, Ruby.

One time you said to me, “When you get rid of stigma, you have great health outcomes.”
I’m proof of that, Ruby!

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]