National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events celebrate progress, tackle stigma | Pittsburgh City Paper

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events celebrate progress, tackle stigma

click to enlarge People of different races chat and eat during a National Black HIV Awareness Day event.
Photo courtesy of Kell Wilkinson, AIDS Free Pittsburgh
Feb. 7, 2023 National Black HIV Awareness Day at the QMNTY Center
National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is on Feb. 7, and two days of programming in Pittsburgh aim to celebrate the medical advancements in HIV/AIDS treatment while solemnly acknowledging the staggering inequality with which the virus has impacted the Black community.

Programming organized by 11 organizations is scheduled for Feb. 6 at 1Hood Media's Black Box in North Oakland from 5 to 9:30 p.m. and Feb. 7 at the QMNTY Center in East Allegheny from 3 to 9:30 p.m.

Black individuals comprised 54% of the 72 new cases of HIV reported in Allegheny County in 2022 while making up just 13.5% of the county's population, according to information from the county and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The event on Feb. 6 is centered on a panel discussion including the voices of HIV/AIDS activists and people directly impacted by the virus. Feb. 7 is a networking opportunity for community members and activists to further strengthen partnerships between local HIV/AIDS-focused organizations. The event will conclude with performances ranging from poetry readings to ballroom dancing.

Two Pittsburgh-area nonprofit organizations providing services to people with HIV/AIDS will offer free reactive testing across both days to flag potential HIV and provide corresponding counseling to walk attendees through the process and next steps.

First come, first serve gift bags include items, informational pamphlets from the organizations that coordinated the event, and a $25 Visa gift card. Anyone who needs transportation to either event can call TransYOUniting, an advocacy organization for Black transgender people who played a central role in organizing the event, at (412) 346-1324.

Dena Stanley, the executive director and founder of TransYOUniting, says the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day programming is intended to foster conversations about HIV/AIDS and connect people to vital health care.

"We're not even getting the proper care that we need to survive," Stanley, a Black transgender woman, says. "HIV is not a death sentence anymore. But if you are not taking your medicine, if you're not on your right regimens, it is a death sentence for you, essentially."

Tinisha Hunt, the CEO of Macedonia FACE, a faith-based nonprofit offering case management for people with HIV/AIDS, says inequalities in the health care system and myths about HIV/AIDS ingrained in the Black community are possible drivers of the disproportionately higher rate of Black HIV/AIDS infections. Hunt notes this stigma can be a deterrent for people getting tested and can result in prejudice against those living with the virus.

"A lot of different things that were associated with [HIV/AIDS] just weren't true," Hunt says. "And so, unfortunately, some of those myths have been so ingrained in the Black community that undoing that takes time."

click to enlarge A flyer detailing events, including Tues. Feb. 6, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Blaxk Box, 460 Melwood Ave., and Weds. Feb. 7, 3 to 9:30 p.m. QMNTY Center, 525 E. Ohio St., Pittsburgh.
Illustration courtesy of Kell Wilkinson, AIDS Free Pittsburgh
Terry Fluker faced this stigma during his 181-day stint at the Allegheny County Jail.

Nine days into his stay at the ACJ on July 17, 2023, Fluker was at a preliminary hearing where he got dizzy, fell to the ground, and sliced his knee open. While blood trickled down his leg, a court constable assisted him to his feet. Fluker whispered to him, "Don't touch my blood. I'm HIV positive."

Fluker, a Black man who lived with HIV for the past 30 years, says he told this only to keep the constable safe, but somehow, word spread to the arresting officer in the courtroom. In the hallway, while being assisted to an ambulance by paramedics, Fluker's arresting officer burst out of the courtroom and yelled, "Did he tell y'all he's HIV positive?" loud enough for the seven other inmates standing less than 10 feet away to hear him.

A source in the courtroom with Fluker on July 17, 2023 confirmed his account.

Fluker says the news of his HIV status, a fact he closely guarded, followed him back to the ACJ. From then until Jan. 5, when he was released, Fluker says he faced stigma and ridicule. His cellmate asked jail officials to move, worried that he would contract HIV just by being in the same room as him, Fluker says. When the jail denied the request, Fluker became fearful that his cellmate’s prejudice would turn to violence, resulting in many sleepless nights and stress-induced stomach issues.

When he would walk to the jail's medical wing, Fluker says he could count on someone mocking him, assuming he was going there on account of his HIV.

"Especially with the African American community, there's a lack of education, like 'you can get it from saliva,' or 'you can get it from the same toilet that we got to use,'" Fluker says. "People saying, 'Oh, did he go in that shower? I don't want to get in that shower because the dude with AIDs was just in it.'"

Anitra Branch, the director of outreach and education for Allies for Health + Wellbeing, hopes discussions through the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day programming will help dispel such myths and stigma and show people with HIV/AIDS that there is an accepting community for them in Pittsburgh.

"We're creating a space — which, thankfully, in Pittsburgh, is one of many spaces and one of many events — where people can feel some sense of community while also increasing awareness and making it very apparent that this is still an issue in several communities," Branch says.

In the jail's bible study classes, Fluker says he relished the opportunity to educate "the brothers who prayed and cared" about the realities of HIV/AIDS. He said he tried to impress on them that anyone can get HIV, not just gay men. Out of jail since Jan. 5, Fluker says he wants to continue to devote part of his life to HIV/AIDS education.

"The stigma and the lack of education is still crazy, especially in the jail setting," Fluker says. "There needs to be more education."