Students fight HIV stigma on World AIDS Day

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HOUSTON, TX – When the AIDS crisis hit back in 1981, it took President Ronald Reagan four years to ever speak publicly about it. Oh, how things have changed! Monday, the White House was adorned with a two-story-high red ribbon for World AIDS Day.

Here in Houston, at the Thomas Street Health Center folks celebrated the day with a “Tree of Remembrance,” where they hung ornaments with the names of friends past and present who have battled AIDS and HIV.

Students at the University of Houston Downtown marched through the streets around campus. One in five of them wore “I am HIV positive” shirts. Tarah Taylor, president of the Black Student Association, says she is HIV-negative but wore the shirt to raise awareness, “People were asking me if I was positive and people gave me dirty looks. It was something I will take forever with me because that is something people have to go through when they are out with their status.”

The backs of those shirts read: “Did you know that one in five people are HIV+ and they don’t even know it.” A staggering statistic… if it were true. Actually, the real deal is that one in five people who “are” HIV-positive are unaware of it. 35 million live with HIV and AIDS worldwide, and that’s why the school embraced the march and anti-stigma rally.

UHD president William Flores was a strong supporter and shared local statistics, “In Houston, we have about 30,000 individuals that are HIV-positive, and it’s every seven hours that one person in Houston is infected.”

Eddie Gonzalez was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2010, “A lot of people are afraid to come out because they’re afraid to get rejected. I mean, I was afraid for at least two years until I came out with it.”

Kristopher Sharp, student government vice president, shared his HIV-positive status openly with the crowd, “It’s gonna take people living with HIV to be open with who they are, to talk about it in open forums just like this and just to let people know that we’re positive, we’re here, we’re healthy, we’re successful. And that’s what we’re really gonna have to do if we want to end stigma.”

More than 200 UHD students got free HIV tests on campus Monday because of the heightened awareness. If it takes a few factually exaggerated t-shirts to get people tested and treated, better that than deadly silence!