By Rick Rose
Editor’s note: Recently, lgbtSr’s Rick Rose wrote here about his experience with HIV/AIDS 30 years on. Knowing that I was born in Mississippi, and himself living in Louisiana, Rick asked his former co-host from their days on WGEM in Quincy, IL and now on-air with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Karen Brown, who to talk to about AIDS in the South. Karen introduced Rick to Robin Webb, an inspiration behind A Brave New Day, whose mission is to provide education and services and to advocate for people faced with life-challenging illnesses and conditions.
RR: There is power in the name of your organization. How did you choose A Brave New Day?
RW: Our organization is built on two complimentary principles, one, that personal empowerment is key to survival when faced with any life-threatening disease or condition and two, that every moment of every day must be fully embraced. For most of us in A Brave New Day’s peer survivor community, life and death literally tugs at you every morning you wake. It takes courage to take a deep breath, dust yourself off, dust the past off, endure the pains, the struggles, and choose life. I chose a Native American branding for A Brave New Day, using as our original logo a brave on a horse under the first light of day. He is essentially naked, surrendered. He is bowing to the sun with his spear at his side, clearly intent on conquering the day not so much with alpha force, rather in a state of humility and awe. For anyone who faces profound daily life challenges (don’t we all?), that image says it all.
RR: 30 years into AIDS, is it really a pandemic anymore? Do people still care? How do you keep education and awareness alive?
RW: We are still seeing 56,000 new infections in the US alone every single year. That number has not decreased for the last decade. American attention spans are short, particularly around HIV. Furthermore, people have always wanted to box HIV, to say “it’s just a gay thing” or “it’s just a black thing” or “it’s just this group that gets it or that group that gets it.” How far can one be from the truth! The virus knows no color or gender or sexual preference. We try very hard to continue speaking to the media, to continue offering community trainings and to advocate both on the local and national levels. Most of us who do federal advocacy, especially in DC, find ourselves fighting harder and harder to just hang on to medical and support services that already exist, which seem destined to be cut in this current political climate. This is discouraging, since we need ten times what exists now, to fight this pandemic. And oh yes, it’s still a pandemic. There are nearly 40 million people living with HIV and or AIDS on this planet today. There is a death from AIDS every 9 minutes.
RR: The gay man you were then (as HIV entered your world) vs. the gay man you are now (as a senior, technically)?
RW: Same man, different day, not so much different gay. Life goes on. You have a choice to say things like, oh I’ll never get intimate again, I despise my sexuality because of this virus, if only this if only that, but HIV is such profound experience. It teaches you who you are in no uncertain terms. It terrifies its host; it forces truth out of us. I have matured through this experience of aging with a lethal virus in my body and my psyche, so yes, externally speaking, I would have had a profoundly different life if HIV had never come knocking. Funny thing, though. Gay remains gay. Gay is gay is gay. Thank God it’s not a whim that just goes away if life circumstances go all wrong or if your partner dies, like mine did, or if a virus comes along. So if there is a deadly virus inside me, there is also “gay” my body and “gay” in my psyche as well, and for me that is a beautiful thing, nothing could be more life affirming.
RR: What is the ONE key difference between “AIDS in the South” and AIDS in the rest of the United States?
RW: The ONE key difference is – are — those TWO S’es with a line drawn through each one. $$, ching, ching. The South has been shortchanged, in terms of federal dollars and in many cases, nearly 10 to 1, for a long time and yet the epidemic has moved to the South. Putting it another way, the 10,000 PLWHA in Mississippi do no look the same in the eyes of the federal government as 10,000 PLWHA living in cities like Chicago or San Francisco. Housing assistance for people whose lives have been shattered, social support services, even access to life-saving medications, all components of comprehensive care are severely challenged in the South. Why is this? Because the feds just don’t like Southerners? No. Because since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, before HIV really hit the South as hard as it is hit today, major urban areas built local advocacy into their infrastructure. They fought for their own, rightfully so. I know, I was there, I was a New Yorker during the 80s and 90s. We fought hard for every pill, every life-saving support service we got. We got empowered. We “ACT-ed UP.” The South just needs to build its own advocacy community. Southerners need to get louder about HIV/AIDS.
RR: It is 2011, when will the walls of ignorance, fear and discrimination come down?
RW: I can only answer that for myself. Those walls are already down. For society, probably never. History seems to send that message. However, it doesn’t mean we have to stop trying. Jesus said it all. Love one another. Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, Muhammed, Mother Theresa, Ghandhi, Confucious, King, they all agree. We have to keep saying it, love one another. That’s the best we can do.
RR: As a LGBT Sr. who will you support for US President 2012?
RW: I’d like to see President Obama get re-elected. However, he must get tougher on HIV/AIDS. We felt such promise around HIV when he got elected, however, his track record ain’t so good. Yes, he inherited a national catastrophe and yes, he’s dealing with very stubborn, very dis-compassionate non-progressives. But we now have waiting lists for people needing life-saving medications, numbering over 8,500 Americans. Although most of the responsibility is that of individual states, and they haven’t done their job, the President has the power to step up to the plate and do something about making certain all Americans living with HIV have access to critical medications and stable housing. He loses my vote if he does nothing.
RR: Share with me about one individual we have lost who would have the most impact on your mission today, if s/he were still alive.
RW: There are so many. Hundreds, in fact. That is no exaggeration. My dear friend Trey Mangum died just last month. I am beside myself. The cause of his death was a heart attack, at 37 years old, just having received his PhD. in Social Work. For several years he was Executive Director at Grace House here in Jackson, a transitional living facility for persons living with HIV and/or AIDS, then Trey became Director of Housing at NO AIDS Task Force in New Orleans. I can already feel the impact of not having Trey around. I miss his mentorship and his support for our organization. However, when someone like Trey leaves the planet so suddenly, with so little explanation, his legacy and post-life presence seem even more intense, so I always have that to keep moving forward. Trey is one reason we keep on forging ahead. The hundreds of others I have known and lost, all of them equally significant, are also reasons to keep marching on.
RR: If AIDS ended tomorrow, what would your next life be?
RW: An avid hiker in Zion Park, Utah, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Oh wait, I already do that. A world traveler, 77 countries, all 7 continents. Oh wait, I just did that, still doing it. A fierce voice for social evolution and justice. Oops been there, still doing that. Write songs, work-out, appreciate every day. Hmm, already claimed. Ah well, I guess I wouldn’t change a thing. (Antarctica was cold.)