Uncovering the truth about HIV.
First there's the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, or AACO, a fulcrum for HIV/AIDS programming, doling out city, state and federal dollars to community-based programs like WATS and the Circle of Care, creating a strong network of like-minded advocates. AACO is the only government HIV/AIDS care organization of its kind in the U.S.
Then, there are concerned politicians who fight to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS because they've heard about its effects from constituents. Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent Hughes and his wife, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph (an original Dreamgirl on Broadway), have a campaign called "Test Together" for couples. City Councilperson Blondell Reynolds-Brown is also deeply concerned and involved.
"As part of my work in the Philadelphia City Council, I've made an effort to be a real, solid, consistent voice for women. So any issue that's impacting or adversely affecting women, I try to as best I can become fluent and knowledgeable about it," Reynolds-Brown says. "Thanks to Sheryl Lee Ralph, my awareness was heightened about HIV/AIDS, so with that new 'awakening' I learned that HIV is rising in our senior citizen community. One of the characters in Sheryl's one-woman show is an older woman who's started dating again after divorce or being widowed and through having unprotected sex, has to deal with the consequences: HIV/AIDS."
Reynolds-Brown is also a firm believer that we've got to do more on the prevention side. "It really does start in our middle schools," she says. "We can no longer wait until young ladies become ninth graders to understand the value and importance of abstinence, and if you must, safe sex. I want to see programs built into school curriculums. Early prevention is absolutely essential."
All the proposed solutions by people for the high incidence of HIV among Philadelphia's black women--whether young or old--begin with a conversation. All the testing, abstinence and "gaydar" in the world won't make a dent if we're still worried about talking. The age gap only makes this worse.
"People are living longer. Partners die. There are a lot more women who are older who are interested in sex too," says Abdul-Khabeer. "They're living in these senior high-rise buildings and because they're old they don't think they or anyone else would have a disease. So not being a part of that mainstream social conversation makes it really hard."
In other words, how do you talk to your mother or grandmother about HIV, when there are men their age who are interested in dating?
"They're from a certain era," says Abdul-Khabeer. "They don't talk like us. We need to design programs to reach that generation and address these issues. They're in the desert of HIV information."
"Women, find something else to do with your life, with your time," says Dr. Curry. "We're facing mortality. When I walk around campus and see these girls all over these men, pinned up against a wall or a pole, I just want to go grab them and ask, 'Why would you disrespect yourself that way and then allow this man to disrespect you?' We need to talk about it."
Curry would like to have a roundtable discussion, where women could talk openly about the midlifer phenomenon.
"Women need to hear from those who have lived it that a man cannot validate you," she says. "We need to validate ourselves. Our character and integrity is all we have. Why allow someone to take that from us?"
"If you don't feel good about yourself, you aren't going to negotiate condom use," says Danielle Parks, echoing Dr. Curry's views. "It just won't happen."
As for Emma, she hopes to find the courage Abdul-Khabeer spoke about to talk to her family and close friends in a more personal way about her relationship with HIV.
"I have to tell my family at some point because now my days aren't as easy as they used to be," she says. "I go through periods where I'll get diarrhea really bad and can't leave the house. I've been heavily depressed and am on medication for depression."
Emma's husband passed away in August of 2004 of an AIDS-related opportunistic lung infection.
"I don't have a partner and am not sexually active now. I'm a widow, and people like my mother, my aunts and cousins, they know there's something going on, but we don't talk about it. We avoid the whole conversation although I've had weight loss and hair loss, all the little things that someone gets with the disease. Sometimes when I can't get out of bed or when I have doctor's appointments on a regular basis, I'll tell them, but that's all they want to know.
"It's like they know, but they don't want to know."
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.