They are waiting on a cure while relying on each other for comfort. They are Black women living with AIDS, a group often left behind in discussion about the diseases. And while they may not have the attention of the entire nation, they do have something- each other.
Support groups for Black women living with AIDS are still rare to find, when compared with that for men in the gay community- the group they were first created to serve. However, Andrea King Collier of the Black AIDS Institute says that the benefits of these peer interactions can have effects even on Black women’s right to responses.
“Most HIV programs and support services were designed to address the needs of gay men, the largest demographic group living with HIV/AIDS and, during the early years, the most visible. But having peer support can help keep women in care.”
In her post for the Institute, Collier recalls speaking to a young woman who has been brutally raped and infected with the disease. The woman, whose name was changed to Robetta Willis for the piece, began meeting with her peer-support group when she was 15. Now, at 26, she says it was the group that allowed her to open up about living with AIDS:
“It wasn’t until I was 20 that I told anyone that I am HIV-positive. I got into a women’s group that encouraged us to not just talk about the stuff around infection, but to talk about what it means to be an HIV/AIDS-infected woman. How can you be a support to somebody if you won’t talk about the thing that brings you together?”
Within the African-American community, the experiences of Black women living with AIDS are not often told as a face affected by it. Despite following the AIDS Conference, paying attention to PEPFAR funding: I will admit that even as someone who avidly follows current events, I know more about the plight of women of color around the world who are living with AIDS, than I do here the same the States. The last reference I can point to is one many of us share- the Girlfriend episode where Joan struggled to clean her kitchen after her friend with HIV get a cut. The scene where Tracee’s character struggles between throwing the knife in to the garbage of reusing it is still one of the most poignant moments for any sitcom.
The narrative of Black women living with AIDS has been a complex one because of the stigma behind the disease. There are practical benefits as well according to Collier who points out that support groups can allow “any HIV-infected women learning how to navigate services and systems in a way that they could never seem to do before their diagnosis,” she says.
Willis says the women in her support group have played an instrumental role in managing her disease and that she hopes to serve as a mentor too:
“I never want another girl or woman to go through this alone.”