By Jesse Brooks
Like so many social problems, the AIDS epidemic is most destructive to those members of society, who are most vulnerable because of its pattern of poverty and social neglect. Initially, in 1981, the media portrayed AIDS as a white gay disease. In 1993, the U.S. CDC expanded its case definition of AIDS to reflect fuller spectrum of the disease, including adding a condition specific to women and those more prevalent among injection drug users. The same year the U.S. FDA approved female condom for sale in U.S.
Women of color, particularly Black women, have been especially hard hit and represent the majority of the new HIV infections and AIDS cases among women. Stopping the epidemic will increasingly depend on how and what extent its affect on women and girls are addressed.
Perceptions of “I’m not at risk” continue to fuel the transmissions. Shelley L. Stinson who has been an HIV Prevention coordinator with Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, for over 10 years, remembers as a young African American woman in college in 1993, having no clue as to the extent of her risk. Stinson an Oakland native attended Stillman College located in West Tuscaloosa Alabama. She says on campus, she had a circle of friends that included a majority of gay men and some started getting sick and some died.
After graduating with a degree in Business Administration she returned to home and in 1995 began working in HIV. Her first position was at The African American Advocacy, Support-Services & Survival Institute (AMASSI), a organization that was the first to recognize that African Americans needed cultural emphasis on their messages and education.
In those days Stinson saw no women at all as clients. She remembers from appearance, it was still a gay men’s disease, but now include large numbers of Black gay men that attended the center for services. She reflects on those days, saying, “The majority of the clients that came in were scared and dying and it seemed they were just living for the day. There were a lot of substance abuse issues after they receiving a positive diagnosis”. She remembers that although their budget was small, the center offered weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings and support groups, such as Black Men Xchange (BMX) that was well attended.
She received a rude awakening in 1996 when her then husband confessed that he had put her at risk of HIV. He disclosed to her that he had had sex with a prostitute and that the condom had busted. Fearful for her own life, she tested and says, “In those two weeks it took back then, waiting for results, I was forced to think about so many things. It was during this time that I realized that HIV/AIDS in the Black community was bigger than what the media was reporting. I realized then, that no one was immune”, she finishes solemnly. Her results returned negative, but the experience altered her perception of her own risks and for other women. Shortly after that she started seeing married women test positive whose risk factors were that their partners were IV drug users and bisexual men.
Eventually remarrying Stinson says a test and sharing the results were requirements. Stinson is presently, and vital to a lot of the prevention work in Oakland. Her successful Annual Black HIV Awareness event that is held at Dorsey’s Locker, a local bar and grill, has been a big success for five years, growing each year, targeting prevention efforts at heterosexual contact. She’s also proud of a program geared towards trouble youth, “Safe and Sound”, that targets troubled teens. Today her joy is found in seeing people live. “We don’t have to die from AIDS”, she says.