By Taylor Knopf & Rose Hoban
More than 60 HIV and AIDS advocates from across North Carolina gathered at the state legislative building in Raleigh on Tuesday for “HIV Speaks on Jones Street.”
This is the second year in a row that advocacy groups have come to the capital to offer free screenings and talk about viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C. This year, 36 people were tested, eight of them lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
“Some folks said they’ve been concerned about hepatitis recently and were actually getting tested to make sure they knew their status,” said Lee Storrow, executive director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.
“Others were pretty confident of what their status was, but by getting tested here in public they were helping to raise awareness and reject stigma.”
Among those tested this year were: Rep. Joe John (D-Raleigh); Chris Brook, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina; James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh; and Evelyn Foust and Jacquelyn Clymore with the Communicable Disease Branch in the Division of Public Health.
Last year, only eight people volunteered for testing on advocacy day at the capitol, and only one was a lawmaker.
This year, the group had a panel of people who are HIV positive talking about the power of telling their life stories and reducing stigma.
“To be able to sit back and listen to that conversation was a really moving experience for me, even after doing this work for three and a half years,” Storrow said.
One story that moved him was from 72-year-old Asheville resident Jody Cross who said her only regret about sharing her story was that she didn’t do it sooner.
Cross was unsure of how to approach her friends about her diagnosis. She said one of her friends, who is an openly gay AIDS nurse, published a book about his experience and got negative reactions. She feared the same, so she kept her diagnosis a secret for about three years.
After her 72nd birthday, she decided it didn’t make a difference what others thought. So she posted her story online for everyone to read. The reaction was all positive.
“All I got was ‘best wishes and luck,’” Cross said.
She said she felt like a weight had been lifted.
Cross told her best friend about her diagnosis, and he said not to worry, and that he has been HIV positive for 26 years. He connected her with Western North Carolina AIDS Project, where she got a case manager, counseling and other resources.
“That kept me on my feet. Now I’m a volunteer and an advocate,” Cross said. “I feel like they saved my life.”