By Ray Jordan, Special to the NNPA from The Dallas Examiner –
Michelle Anderson is a mother, an activist, and a recent beauty pageant winner. However, she is more than that. She's also one of the thousands of African American women living with HIV/AIDS. While HIV and AIDS was once considered to be a White gay male disease, the face of HIV has shifted dramatically and now overwhelmingly affects African Americans with a sharp increase in African American women. In fact, according to the National Women's Health Information Center, an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Black women are 15 times more likely to be infected with HIV than are White women and are four times more likely than that of Latinas.
Anderson's story, while tragic, is not that different than thousands of other women. Sexually abused as a child and unable to handle the emotional trauma she experienced as a result of it, she sought refuge in drugs and alcohol.
"I made some bad decisions," Anderson admitted. "And, some (decisions) stemmed from being molested as a child." She explains how she turned to drugs and alcohol and to having sex for money when she could no longer afford the drugs.
"I knew my behavior was risky," she says, "but, I thought of AIDS as a gay man's disease and I was neither a man nor was I gay."
However, during drug treatment Anderson was given an HIV test and describes being stunned when the test came back positive. "I was in disbelief. I was shocked. I was angry. I thought I was going to die and that there was no reason to continue drug treatment." But before she gave up and left the treatment center, she had a dream. "I'm a spiritual person," Anderson said. "I had an overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be ok. While in treatment, I had a dream that I would die of old age not HIV. It's the only reason I stayed."
Anderson’s story, unfortunately, is not that uncommon. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. This means that Black women, although only 12 percent of the female population, account for 61 percent of all new HIV cases among women. In fact, HIV/AIDS is the third leading cause of death among Black women aged 25 to 34 and 35 to 44, the majority of whom, like Anderson, contracted the virus through heterosexual sex.
Research points to several complex factors that have led to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS within the Black community and the dramatic increase among Black women, two of which are socioeconomic factors and stigma. Social and economic realities of some African Americans have shown to increase HIV risk. These realities include higher levels of poverty, racial discrimination, lack of healthcare access and higher rates of incarceration, which disrupt social and sexual networks. CDC research has shown that poverty is associated with a higher risk of HIV infection among African Americans, even among those who do not have high-risk behaviors.
Studies have also shown that the stigma associated with both an HIV diagnosis and sexual orientation can be greater within the African American community and therefore invoke fear of disclosing one's HIV status. Subsequently, this causes an obstacle to education, treatment, and further disease prevention. This fear, according to the CDC, can also prevent African Americans from receiving the much-needed support of friends and family that a newly diagnosed person needs.
As with many other HIV positive African American women, Anderson describes the experiences with her friends and family as bittersweet. "It was really hard at first with my family. They weren't educated. I had to really deal and go through a process of reeducating them. It took a little while, but they were able to accept it," she says. Anderson has persevered and in spite of sensitive experiences within her family and romantic relationships, she has become an activist and advocate for other women living with HIV.
Almost 12 years since her diagnosis, Anderson, at 40 years old, is healthy, happy, and the newly crowned Ms. Duncanville Plus. She describes herself as fully disclosed, even with new dating partners, as she raises a teenager. Knowing that it may mean the end of a promising relationship or even cause difficulty for her youngest daughter who isn't quite 17 years old, she's not deterred. Yes, she's had some men not want to continue dating because of her status and although her daughter has experienced taunting at school, Anderson and her three children are fine with that. She knows that living her truth is better than living in shame. She has a message to share.
"The most important thing that people need to realize is that we all share the same vulnerabilities. Everyone wants to think about the behavior, but the behavior is just a symptom of the vulnerability. We all share the same vulnerabilities, the only difference is I'm infected and they're not."
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