Harlem Event Targets Women with HIV

A play’s reading exposes disease’s link to straight women infected by spouses

On February 7, the Harlem Directors Group, an HIV/AIDS advocacy and policy association, hosted an event at the National Black Theatre in Harlem in recognition of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness and Information Day.

The five-hour event included outreach tables at which representatives from 25 citywide agencies and organizations distributed information to community residents and made referrals to social service and health providers.

A feature of the day was a two-hour reading of the play “What Would Jesus Do?” by Yvette Heyliger about a religious, middle class Harlem woman’s harsh awakening to her husband’s HIV-positive status.

A live HIV test demonstration planned for the day was dropped from the schedule due to lack of time, but free and anonymous HIV testing was administered on the premises, said organizer Leatrice Wactor, senior program coordinator of the Harlem Directors Group.

Around 300 people, most of them Harlem residents, attended the event, said Wactor.

Funding for the event came from many sources, including the National Black Alcoholism & Addiction Council, Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, and Isaiah Grace, a New York-based health services organization.

Frank Oldham, Jr., Citywide Coordinator for AIDS of the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, read a statement from Mayor Michael Bloomberg which officially proclaimed February 7 National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness & Information Day in the City of New York.

The event was faith-based, with considerable discussion of the role the black church can play in fighting AIDS in the black community.

“People of color have historically not been able to be educated [through traditional channels] but we have been creative and used the church to do that,” said Wactor.

“The church has been in the foreground of struggles facing the black community from abolition to civil rights,” said Reginald Miller, director of education and outreach of the Health and Wellness Strategies Division of Harlem Congregation for Community Improvement.

“There is that trust and that’s what we as a community tend to build on,” but, he added, “it is a challenge to keep it relevant.”

An elevated national rate in HIV transmission among African American women of childbearing age was the catalyst for Saturday’s event. Organizers and invited speakers stressed the importance of all people, straight, gay, and bisexual, male and female, getting tested for the virus.

“If we do not find out our status, we are saying that we don’t care about every unborn child in our community,” said Sharlene Nash-Pryor, director of case management at Harlem Dowling Westside Center for Children and Family Services, in her remarks opening the event.

“We cannot take AIDS in the context of AIDS itself,” said Debra Fraser-Howze, president and CEO of the National Leadership Commission on AIDS, who noted that African American women are contracting the virus at what is currently the nation’s highest sero-conversion rate.

Fraser-Howze said that mistrust by African American women of the medical establishment, and that establishment’s apathy towards the health of black women, is the double bind at the root of the problem.

The medical establishment says “black women are not compliant with treatment. They do not do what we tell them to do, so we don’t even bother to ask,” said Fraser-Howze. “We need to show [the medical establishment] how much you care about you,” she said.

Councilmembers Bill Perkins, whose district encompasses Harlem, and Margarita Lopez, from the Lower East Side, spoke of the need to channel city funds into communities of color to combat the spread of AIDS. Both Perkins and Lopez are longtime advocates of increased AIDS funding.

“Do not be polite when the budget session comes around,” Perkins told the audience. “Be demanding.”

“We are not demanding to be taken care of,” said Lopez. “The power is in our communities, but not the power structures.”

Lopez said that the City of New York presently has $5 million specifically earmarked for AIDS education, prevention and services to communities of color, out of the city’s overall budget.

The play “What Would Jesus Do?” was the day’s main event. A cast of 17 actors read the script, including Heyliger’s identical twin sister, Yvonne Farrow, who played the lead character, a woman who learns that she might be infected with HIV due to her husband’s sexual encounters with men.

The play addresses the phenomenon known in African American communities as the “down low,” or DL, man.

The definition of DL appears to be as elusive as the men it describes, but it refers to men who have sex with other men, who do not identify as gay or bisexual, and in many cases, maintain committed heterosexual relationships or marriages.

Public health researchers and lay people alike are now speculating on whether DL men’s clandestine sexual behavior, if mostly unsafe, is a major factor in the infection of heterosexual black women.

“The issue is becoming larger because the rate of transmission among African American women is increasing and [researchers] are trying to come up with if there’s a connection to all these DL men in the community,” said Wactor.

Heyliger says she has received criticism from black gay men concerned that the portrayal of the DL husband in her play conveys a false impression of openly gay men. Indeed, after the performance one young man posed the question, “Do you mean to say that black gay men are the ones responsible for all the AIDS in the black community?”

“The play was not intended as a put down to gay men,” said Heyliger. “I was trying to paint a picture of the down low man, and the down low man is not the gay man. That’s an important distinction.”

The play features staged testimonials by women of varied ages and backgrounds telling their stories of how they contracted HIV. Heyliger says these testimonials were based on actual interviews she conducted with women living with HIV and AIDS whom she contacted through the Harlem Directors Group.

The play also addresses the sensitive subject of HIV-negative people purposely getting infected in order to benefit from publicly-funded services afforded to people living with HIV.

Leslie Campbell, a peer educator at the Minority Task Force on AIDS, said she has heard of cases in which homeless or otherwise destitute people have admitted to exposing themselves to the virus in order to qualify for food, shelter, and other benefits. Campbell is working on starting a focus group for women who might be in danger of following this path.

To the question of whether we are seeing a shift in focus in HIV/AIDS education from black gay men to African American women, Fraser-Howze said, “The black gay community must be home. They must come home and say, ‘This is what we need.’ The community will perish without that knowledge transfer.”

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