Growing up in today’s world, the most prevalent and dire fears a current college student faces may border along the lines of terrorism. However, that is not to say other fears do not linger in the background and for some, in the forefront of their lives. One of these fears is testing HIV positive or having AIDS. As a way to coincide with World AIDS day on Thursday, Dec. 1, World AIDS Week at KSC was presented to the campus community. The goal was to educate others on the disease. Events included an awareness fair, a film screening, an activism exhibit and free rapid HIV testing. It went from Monday, Nov. 28 to Friday, Dec. 2. Both the KSC and Keene community members got involved.
Assistant minister and youth minister of the United Church of Christ in Keene (UCC Keene) Christopher Cornell said he helped out with the event in order to let people, HIV positive or not, know that there is available support for them. “I see so much hope in our community,” he said, “as a place to come together and support each other. We want to be there for anyone who’s struggling with anything.”
Cornell said the UCC Keene is actively involved in providing a safe and accepting community. “We live in a culture that has a hard time being sex positive. It’s easy to fall into traps of stigma and as a church, we want to be a voice against that,” he said. He pointed to a pin on his shirt as validation, which read, “God gave me sexuality.”
Cornell said he was deeply disheartened when asked what he thinks when people say people with AIDS deserve it since they may be “committing a sin.” He said, “These sorts of comments pull us apart as a community and we should be working together to support each other.” Cornell said the UCC Keene has partnered up with health and medical centers in Keene. This relationship provides different elements of support for any individuals coping with HIV or AIDS. “We tend to do a lot of pastoral care and then redirect people [as needed],” he said.
The UCC Keene was just one of the organizations that provided financial assistance to run the event. Other organizations included the Center for Health and Wellness, the Athena Nursing Club and the Public Health Club. In addition, many other groups came forward to help table the event and provide applicable resources including Healthy KSC, the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Planned Parenthood Keene Health Center, KSC Pride, Common Ground, the Health Science Department and the Office of Multicultural Student Support and Success.
The Program Support Assistant for LGBTQ students Hunter Kirschner is available to support the needs of students on campus, particularly when it comes to their identity. He helped organize World AIDS week at KSC, explaining that he really wanted people to know that while there isn’t as much activism as there was in the 80s when AIDS was at its prime, the illness is still a relevant topic. “It’s historically viewed as a gay man’s disease, although not only gay men get it. We’re trying to promote [that] awareness as well, as the fact that people still do have the disease,” Kirschner said. In fact, he said the people who are most likely to contract the HIV virus, which then leads to AIDS, are transgender women of color.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2013 report showed that 28 percent of transgender women had an HIV infection, and of that 56 percent of black African American transgender women were HIV positive. This was the highest percentage shown. Kirschner said much of this is because the healthcare options are complicated. “Even with legal protection, there’s still a lot of discrimination against trans-people with housing and healthcare,” he said. “There’s less opportunities for them.” Despite the statistics, Kirschner is optimistic. He said he intends to use this optimism for the future of KSC by providing information so that everyone can get applicable resources.
Coordinator of Wellness Education Tiffany Mathews said typically the college has a World AIDS day event every year, but this year they decided to make it a week-long project. “We’re also trying to provide education on sexually transmitted diseases and safe sex,” she said. Mathews explained KSC’s Center for Health and Wellness offers a prescription for the drug Truvada, which can treat and decrease the risk of HIV. She advised students to check with their insurance to see if this was an applicable option for them.
Another group with goals of providing acceptance is KSC Pride. KSC Pride President junior Sam Whitaker said the group got involved because they wanted to offer information for the LGBTQA+ communities. “As a society, we’re more focused on white, cisgendered individuals,” he said. “There’s the possibility of racism and phobia, so there are some populations who aren’t always represented.” Whitaker said he loves being part of KSC Pride. “I love the community and the sense of belonging it can give to others,” he said.
KSC sophomore and treasurer of KSC Pride Vivian Valengavich said the assumptions made in the 80s about people with AIDS created a catalyst of stigma. “People thought you were obviously gay, you obviously slept around,” she said. “There’s always a stigma against things that aren’t normal.”
Valengavich said that stigma is still present, but as far as she’s concerned, she’s not going to abide by it. “I would be willing to speak with HIV positive people and be their friend and look past their HIV identity,” she said. “You can still live a full life being HIV positive. There are medications and there are always welcoming people.”
Dorothy England can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org