“Getting to Zero” Community Forum on HIV/AIDS

“We’ve become complacent” about AIDS, a community member said during Tuesday’s World AIDS Day forum in the Hartford Public Library.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, she said, society talked about AIDS. Now, not so much. She called for the need to have conversations in places like barbershops. grocery stores, and in Spanish; then, she passed her microphone to another audience member, who delivered comments in Spanish.

This sentiment was echoed by panelists. One of them, Yvette Highsmith-Francis, the Director of Community Health Center, Inc., said we should be having these dialogues at Thanksgiving dinner and when having pedicures.

Even in 2011, misinformation about the transmission of HIV exists. Highsmith-Francis told the audience about an encounter with a woman in her forties who believed she could “catch AIDS” from hugging someone.

This panelist was not the only to acknowledge how little is still known about HIV/AIDS. Another community member chimed in about how education needs to be taken “outside to the streets,” because places like basketball courts are where youth are getting their (often erroneous) information about sexual health. Panelist Cecilia Baldwin, Manager of Quality Assurance and Technical Assistance at the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition (CARC) affirmed this: “if they’re not learning it from us, they’re learning it from kids at school.”

It is not always as simple as parents or schools educating youth on sexual health. A scenario presented to panelists and the audience is one that many Hartford residents experience: what to do if you are a grandparent who suddenly, because of your son or daughter’s incarceration, finds yourself raising their children? How does a conversation with that ten-year-old happen?

Start by asking questions, said several in the audience. Shawn Lang, the Director of Public Policy at CARC, was among them; she added that from the time children are young, it helps to use proper names when discussing body parts. This kind of frank talk, she said, makes the more difficult conversations easier when those children get older. Tyrone, also in the audience, advised people to “just talk and listen,” and “don’t sugarcoat.”

But, again, it is not all that simple.

As one panelist, Danielle Warren-Dias, noted, many “young black men […] have to be on the low” in their own homes because of the stigma about homosexuality, or as some would put it, men who have sex with men. Warren-Dias said some get beaten by family members if they are open about their sexuality, again pointing back to the reality that for some, home is not going to be the place where honest and accurate discussions about sexual health will be happening. To complicate that, she explained that “right now the black Church ostracizes black men who have sex with men.”

Mother Jade from the House of Pandora, said that the schools need to be educating youth because they are not having these conversations, all the time, at home.

By the time youth find someone they can confide in and ask important questions of, many are already engaging in risky behaviors.

Lang called housing “a structural intervention” because when shelter is available, people are less likely to exchange sex for a place to stay. Baldwin called housing “a form of health care,” since a person needs a refrigerator to keep medication cold. Having shelter takes care of their mental well-being. They are not worrying where they will be from day-to-day.

Highsmith-Francis said that in order to reach the global goal of “getting to zero,” panelists and people in the audience would need to “turn real talk to real action.”

On December 1st — actual World AIDS Day — there are several events taking place locally. Latino Community Services will be hosting the Red Shoe Affair from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 617 Park Street.At 3 p.m., CARC, in conjunction with Occupy Hartford, will be gathering at the corner of Farmington and Broad to hold signs and distribute condoms.

For a more complete list of area events, see the CARC website.

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