Vu Q&A: Gina Brown on the Importance of Stigma-Reduction Services in the Deep South (AIDSVu)

Gina Brown, MSW, Community Engagement Manager for Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC), spoke with AIDSVu about the COMPASS Initiative and the importance of mapping stigma-reduction services in the Deep South.

April 7, 2020 – AIDSVu.

Gina Brown, MSW, is the Community Engagement Manager for Southern AIDS Coalition (SAC)

The Gilead COMPASS InitiativeTM (COMmitment to Partnership in Addressing HIV/AIDS in Southern States) is a 10-year, $100 million commitment to support organizations working to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Southern United States.

Q: You have been working in the HIV field for over 15 years. How did you first become involved in community organizing and advocating for better health literacy among people living with HIV (PLWH)?

In 1994, I was diagnosed with HIV. Around this time, I would frequently go to a clinic where they would call you by your full first and last name. Living in New Orleans, I've learned that the names here are really unique and often when you hear a name you know the family. One day, they called a woman's name and I saw every head in the clinic turn around to look at her. I still remember the look on her face – we all knew who her family was.

After I decided to discuss what happened with my doctor and they eventually gave me a phone number to call to report any grievances or recommendations for the clinic. I called the phone number and told the operator the situation and why using a patient's full name can often be embarrassing and cause unnecessary stigma. Three months later I went to the clinic and when I was in the waiting room my doctor came to the door and she called out Gina B. I looked up and I kind of froze because I couldn't believe she didn't call my whole name. When we went into the exam room she said, "I don't know who you called but the request made sense, so we are no longer able to call patients by their last name."

That was my first time successfully advocating for those in the HIV community. It took me years to really get into advocacy and community organizing. However, when I did it was around these really important issues. I realized that I was one of those people that could rally my community to come together and advocate for a common goal. So that's how I knew I had a voice.

Q: You identify as a proud bisexual Black woman living with HIV and have been living with an HIV diagnosis for nearly 30 years. How have you seen stigma in the South for PLWH evolve over the last 30 years? What do we need to do to work towards reducing stigma in the South?

Believe it or not, for all of the years that I've been living with HIV, I have not seen that much change from society. Those of us who are living with HIV have evolved ourselves to better stand up against stigma. But as far as the general public, a lot of misinformation is still out there.

People laugh at me whenever I'm doing a training because I say "I'm that woman in the grocery store." That essentially means someone could be in aisle 3 and I can be on aisle 2, but if you say the wrong thing about HIV, I will have no problem popping over and saying "that's not true". I use these moments as opportunities to educate people because I know they simply don't know the truth. Unfortunately, a lot of the stigma is still here. People still think that you get HIV from a toilet seat, plate, or even an inanimate object. When I hear these statements, I just try and give them the facts.

One thing we can do in the South to combat stigma and start conversations on topics that may be uncomfortable in the Black community is to have it through our churches. A lot of Black people are religious. They go to church and they listen to what their preacher says. If the preacher told them that HIV was a medical condition and not a behavioral condition, I think this would do a lot to reduce the stigma associated with HIV.

I hope this can help our community look beyond the stigma of certain behaviors and start asking other questions. It's not just the fact that some men have sex with men or women may have sex without a condom. What is their socio-economic status? Are they homeless? Are they a part of the drug injection community? What other things are going on? Since we don't talk about these things, that stigma stays intact and really hurts our community. However, once you start having those conversations, I think we can get rid of some of that stigma. Continue reading on AIDSVu...

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