Uncovering the truth about HIV.
But Emma also reveals something startling: She still hasn't disclosed her HIV positive status to any family members.
"I withdrew from everyone, at least on a personal level," she says. "I've been positive now for seven years and none of my immediate family know. I do have a support group that I attend, but in our community, we don't talk about it. There's this stigma. As people find out, they treat you a lot different. It's a prejudice in our community."
When Emma has tried to share her story, the response has been negative. "So you don't get the opportunity to say, 'Hey, have you been tested? I have, and I found out what my status is.'"
The negative feedback is often due to attention paid to men on the "down low," or DL.
The DL is the term for not identifying as a gay male, but having a sexual resume that implies otherwise.
"We're easily distracted," says Abdul-Khabeer. "I think one of the biggest distractions we had was the large media presentation of the 'down low.' That didn't have anything to do with us. Yes, we have men who have sex with men who have sex with women. But the focus became men on the 'down low' and the gossipy aspect of that and not about the fact that what he does is really irrelevant. It's what you're doing to yourself--putting yourself at risk."
This means that the No. 1 preventive tool for HIV/AIDS isn't an assurance that you're with a man who isn't gay or bisexual. It's listening to your inner voice, being prepared to walk away from a potentially harmful or dysfunctional situation, and being content with being alone, which doesn't require a set of tests, but a certain level of self-respect and higher standards.
Community College of Philadelphia has a diverse student body. There are attendees from every age, racial and socioeconomic group. The CCP Women's Center was created in 2002 to identify and meet the needs of female students in an environment that promotes diversity, understanding, equality and mutual respect. Dr. Claudia Hearst Curry, founding director of the Center, began doing routine confidential HIV testing at the Center a few semesters ago because of the high incidence of infection among women and because of her personal mission to empower women of all ages.
"When I look at my background and examine my career, I see that I've always done things that involved empowering and helping to develop women," she says. "I knew that the women I was counseling didn't have a clue. Not to put them down, but they were dealing with situations that they didn't have to be in, and I wanted to help them."
Curry created a pilot program, a seven-Saturday workshop series. She recruited students as test subjects and put a curriculum together with classes on low self-esteem, conflict resolution and financial empowerment. She wanted to examine the short-term impact of empowering students. The results became a book, Understanding the Empowerment Phenomenon, released last April.
Curry came to her professional work for personal reasons. "I didn't have very good relationships with women, whether in or outside of my family," she says. "During the workshops, we established a 'sister pact' of strength through the knowledge that we weren't dealing with the stresses of life alone." It pains Curry, she says, to see women disrespecting themselves and shunning other women.
"When I do my self-esteem training, I'm really big on how we need to support each other as women," she says. "I had a woman in her 50s in my workshops who'd been living with a functional alcoholic for 30 years, and because of what she learned, she finally kicked him out of the house. She'll graduate with a liberal arts degree from St. Joe's soon. So if we have resources and information that other women can use, don't hold it back."
Curry thinks women resist sharing information with each other because they don't want other women to know more than they do. "But when you give, it comes back to you," she says.
Curry believes it's imperative to build bonds with women at midlife.
More than a few voices caution that in the decade-plus since effective antiretroviral meds have transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable infection, too many people have lost their fear of the virus.
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