BY JAMES HARPER
WASHINGTON – Daytona Beach residents are among the 20,000 people from around the world gathered at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
Jeff Allen is one of the founders of the Positive Champions Speakers Bureau, which is made up of people from all walks of life. The bureau’s purpose is to heighten community awareness and increase compassion for people with HIV/AIDS.
Half the people living with HIV in America are Black. That was revealed by the Black AIDS Institute this week during the conference.
“We in the Positive Champions Speakers Bureau are definitely aware that there is a disproportionate amount of African- Americans that are being diagnosed with HIV,” Allen said.
“That is one of the main reasons that we decided to create the speakers bureau. We recognize that stigma is keeping people from being tested. People don’t want people to know they have HIV,” Allen explained.
Joining Allen in Washington were bureau members and Daytona Beach residents Mary Bennefield, Omar Mayes and Cindy Maldanado.
Members make presentations to schools, health care professionals, businesses, civic organizations, detention facilities or wherever they’re asked to bring more understanding to HIV/AIDS and to put an end to the fear and stigma that surround the disease, according to their website.
Allen and company were with thousands who marched outside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Monday, the second day of the conference. The conference was being held in the United States for the first time in 22 years because the U.S. lifted its travel ban of people infected with HIV.
Allen, who has been HIV positive for 27 years, was glad the ban was lifted.
“I know that some people were against it, just like they were against the “don’t ask don’t tell,” just like they were against African-Americans having equal rights, just like they were against women’s right to vote,” Allen remarked.
“If we just stood by and continued the way we always do business, we would probably still have slavery within this country,” he elaborated.
Tired of injustice
Had the ban not been lifted, the message would have been sent worldwide “that the U.S. does not care about international issues, and conflict between our nation and others would continue.”
Allen said it was important for him and other members of his group to be at the conference “to show our officials in Washington that we are a force to be reckoned with, that we have determination and that our voices are powerful and our vote is strong.”
“We are tired of the poor, disenfranchised and disabled persons being taken advantage of, being unfairly treated as a citizen, and furthering the disparities from within our communities even more. White, African-American, Hispanic, Pan-Asian/Asian, Caribbean, Native Americans, all communities banded together with one common theme: We can end AIDS,” Allen added.
Fear still exists
Allen says there still is a lot of fear and stigma associated with HIV, making it really difficult for people to get tested.
He explained that many don’t want to talk about HIV/AIDS for fear of being perceived as being gay or gay tolerant.
“The African-American community is not different in that respect. Men don’t want to be perceived as being homosexual. We have long been making the statements that this is no longer a gay disease. But the stigma of how it all started is still there. The associations of being gay are still very much present,” Allen continued.
Allen revealed that almost half of the people that participate in a support group he is a member of are heterosexual.
“If this group represents the population of our area, then obviously the stigma created by the homosexual aspect is unfounded,” he noted.
Allen says one of his biggest concerns is young people growing up now who are not taking HIV/AIDS seriously.
“We need to teach HIV education within our public school systems, beyond abstinence. The younger generation is seeing people living longer with HIV and therefore don’t see it as big a threat as it was in 1981 and shortly there after,’’ he explained. “I have been talking to my nephews about HIV since they were 9 years old or so.’’
For more information about the Positive Champions Speakers Bureau, visit www.daytonaspeakersbureau.com.