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HIV in Richmond

By: Alice Millerchip, Staff Writer


HIV/AIDS is not a phenomenon of the past. In fact, it is an epidemic that affects communities nationwide, including Richmond, Virginia, which has one of the highest rates of HIV in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the height of the epidemic in the 1980s, white gay men were the leading voices of HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, according to Diversity Richmond’s website. But today, HIV disproportionately affects people of color. In 2016, the number of people living with HIV in Richmond was 4,970 and 69.7 percent of those people were black, according to AIDSVu, an interactive online tool that maps the prevalence of HIV in communities across the U.S.To disrupt the narrative of HIV/AIDS as a disease of white gay men that lives in the past, two University of Richmond professors are conducting research on the epidemic and engaging students in their work.

Professor of American Studies Dr. Laura Browder began collecting oral histories of Richmonders who have lived with HIV/AIDS, or those who have been closely affected by the epidemic. Some of her work is featured in The Valentine museum in Richmond in the Pandemic exhibit.

“It is a surprisingly understudied topic,” Browder said. “When I began doing research and preparing for the oral histories, I was shocked to discover that this is a public health crisis right under our noses.”

Associate professor of theatre Dr. Patricia Herrera has joined Browder in her research, and the two are now co-teaching a class where students will write, rehearse and perform a documentary drama on HIV/AIDS in Richmond, pulling from research and stories gathered throughout the semester. The performance will be on December 1, World Aids Day, at the Richmond Triangle Players theater.

“It’s one thing to read about a social issue and another thing to engage in it,” Browder said. “We are not going to solve all of the problems, but we can learn in depth about what the problem is and learn how to be better allies instead of passive

observers.”


Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that weakens the immune system, harming the body’s ability to fight off infections. It is most commonly transmitted through certain body fluids linked with sexual behavior or needle and syringe use, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abstinence, using condoms and not sharing needles can prevent infection. For people who are at high risk of contracting HIV, medicines such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, exist. Gay or bisexual black men are the largest group affected by the disease, according to hiv.gov.

No cure exists for HIV, but it can be controlled through proper medication. If untreated, HIV develops into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Given all of the treatments we have today, as of Sept. 1, 2017, no one ever has to test positive for HIV, author and HIV/AIDS activist Rodney Lofton said in his interview with Browder, which is part of the collection of oral histories.

But the epidemic still exists, partially due to factors such as a lack of access to medication, stigma around HIV/AIDS that prevents people from taking medication and a lack of outreach and knowledge in at-risk communities.

As Lofton said, HIV/AIDS is also no longer an ongoing conversation. “Part of the reason for this is the fact that it is a racialized issue, and everything that has to do with racism and racial history is put under,” Herrera said. “It’s not something people want to engage with.”Lofton tested positive for HIV in December of 1993 when he was 25 years old. “The day I got diagnosed with HIV was the day I thought I was going to die,” he said.

But after coming to the realization that living with HIV is not a death sentence, Lofton started to become an active member in HIV/AIDS prevention. He is an advocate and author of two books, The Day I Stopped Being Pretty, and No More Tomorrows. As an expert on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Lofton is a resource for Browder and Herrera to engage in and better understand the epidemic.

“We are not experts, so we allow people in the community who are experts to drive the projects instead of us,” Herrera said.

Browder added, “We like to think of our classroom as being a space where, together with the community, we can create and disseminate new knowledge.” Collaborating with various advocates in the community and partnering with organizations like the Health Brigade helps Browder and Herrera remain in synergy with what the community is doing.

Lofton also served as a consultant to help develop the Pandemic at The Valentine, where Browder’s work is featured.

“It’s crucial to talk with the stakeholders,” curator of archives at The Valentine Meg Hughes said. “We are not experts in the subject matter. We have to talk to people who have lived it and are involved in it to create a correct and authentic reflection of what it was really like and what it is currently like.”

To date, Browder has compiled 12 oral histories. She and Herrera plan to conduct further interviews for the HIV 17 exhibition in the Stettinius Gallery of The Valentine. Browder’s work on HIV/AIDS will also be featured in a Spring 2019 exhibition at the University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum of Art, with photographer Brian Palmer, called, Growing Up in Civil Rights Richmond: A Community Remembers. Browder and Herrera hope that their oral histories will become a resource for scholars and community activists in the future.

“What makes Dr. Browder and Dr. Herrera so amazing is their unwavering commitment to their research,” said Joe Kelly, a student in Browder and Herrera’s class. “The fact that they allow their students to be apart of their journey to engage in this issue of HIV/AIDS in Richmond is incredible.”

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