Today is National HIV Testing Day, which was founded in 1995 to raise awareness for the historically misunderstood disease. Even today, myths and misinformation surround HIV and AIDS–myths that Gina Brown, a social worker and medical manager at the NO/AIDS Task Force in New Orleans works every day to erase. Brown knows a thing or two about how important HIV testing is–she herself tested positive in 1994 during a routine prenatal exam, and was kind enough to share her story with us.
The test, which Brown said she was sure would come back negative (even in 1994, HIV was still largely thought to be a risk only for gay men), saved her life. At just 28, her nurse told her it meant she was going to die. But now, decades later, she knows the truth: without it, “I would be dead,” she says. “Or I would have contracted PCP pneumonia and would have gone to a hospital and found out then, but most likely I’d be dead.”
“I wasn’t mad at the person who gave it to me,” Brown told me, “I was mad at myself. Because even then, I thought I should have known better.”
Which is a sentiment that a lot of HIV-positive individuals express–even though there are still relatively few resources, particularly in low-income urban areas. That’s why Brown, who is a registered social worker, has turned a heartbreaking diagnosis into a life of service. She’s an educator, a dynamic speaker, and an advocate for those living with HIV and AIDS, and often counsels individuals who’ve been recently diagnosed–a service she says is invaluable to anyone who’s received such earth-shattering news.
Her services are particularly needed in light of the stigma the disease still carries, which she says she first noticed in a clinic for patients with HIV and AIDS. Nurses there would call out patients by their first and last names, which Brown said felt like a huge breach of privacy:
I found it really offensive that they came through that door and called us by our whole names, because some people have really unique names, and maybe they didn’t want everyone to hear it called out. And what I did was I went to the lady who operated the clinic, and I complained about it. It wasn’t about me–it was about the people who were coming in there. But that was my first act of activism.
Her transition to becoming a full-time advocate—and becoming open about her status—didn’t come until later:
I started working as a peer advocate, and I realized that I realized I had a voice. A real voice. I did an article for the Gambit, but I used a fake name because I was afraid of anyone finding out about me. But after Katrina, I came back home in 2007 to help rebuild the HIV community, and I thought it was time. It was time for everyone to see somebody with HIV who didn’t look like they had HIV. Because HIV has no look.
Now, Brown says she isn’t afraid to reveal her status. Instead, her mission to start conversations with women every chance she gets. When I asked her somewhat facetiously if she meant at the grocery store, she answered with complete honesty: Yes.
On the weekends, I wear my HIV and AIDS t-shirts wherever I go, to Target or WalMart. And women will come up and ask me about them, and that starts conversations. I’m very open about my status…everyone in this town probably knows my status!
But the first step is getting tested, which Brown says is critical. Because, she emphasized, regardless of what myths or messages you may have heard, HIV is a disease no target demographic. Even those who aren’t in the “high risk” groups are still at risk.