Special Report: Policy & Advocacy
By Judith Dillard
Let me tell you the story of a nice African-American girl from Texas who didn’t think she could get HIV — but did.
It’s also the story of how she tried to kill herself over it. And it’s the story of how she found something to live for by fighting to stop the epidemic in her people —- and by joining an amazing new AIDS activism movement called The Campaign to End AIDS that’s taking her and thousands of others all the way to Washington, D.C., this October.
Oh, by the way, it’s my story.
My name is Judith Dillard. I’m 51 years old. I grew up in Abilene, Tex., in a close-knit family. Then I moved to L.A. with my husband. He worked for United Airlines and I was a sales associate for J.C. Penney in Culver City. But he left me for an ex-girlfriend.
I took it bad—but I reacted by finding a few boyfriends of my own. Of course, I didn’t have safe sex with them. This was the 1980s -— I thought HIV was something only gay white men got.
I needed back surgery in 1990, and the doctor told me that I’d need three pints of blood, but that I could use my own, so I went to the blood bank. Soon after, they let me know that I’d tested HIV positive.
I was devastated. I thought I didn’t know anything about the disease except that I was going to die. I couldn’t deal with it and didn’t want to tell anybody. So I did a complete about-face. I called work and told them I wouldn’t be coming in anymore, left my whole apartment behind and got on a bus to downtown L.A. I checked into a cheap hotel and started smoking crack with people there. I just didn’t want to live.
For seven years, I ran with homeless people and drug addicts on the streets of L.A. I became one of them myself. Everybody I met would ask me, “What’s someone like you doing down here?” Two years in, I confided to a girl that I had HIV —- and she told everybody on the streets.
Some folks treated me like I had the plague. I’m sure in that crowd, I wasn’t the only one with HIV, but I was the only one who was out with it!
Occasionally I’d go to an AIDS agency, where they’d hook me up with a doctor and a supply of meds. I’d walk out of there and dump them in the garbage. I just didn’t care.
Finally, in 1997, I got busted for crack possession. The judge said I could go to prison for three years or to drug rehab. I picked rehab, where they had a program that teaches you that drugs are just the surface problem of an underlying issue. For me, that issue was HIV. I looked forward to those classes every day. They made me accept that I had to learn to live with HIV and that drugs were not the answer. Now I’ve been clean for eight years.
After the rehab program, I went to a transitional housing program. That where I decided to throw myself into HIV/AIDS activism. I got involved in L.A.’s planning council for the Ryan White CARE Act for treatment and services for people with HIV/AIDS, which decides how that money is spent in L.A. When I heard a well-paid “expert” say that one of the top three needs of women of color with HIV/AIDS in L.A. was pet care, it pissed me off.
I joined the Women’s Caucus of HIV and AIDS, and together we made our real top priorities clear — housing, medical care, child care and transportation, thank you very much! Since then, I’ve worked as a benefits specialist, treatment educator and peer counselor for different AIDS services agencies in the L.A. area. I wanted to do as many things as possible to turn my life around.
I moved back to Texas after my dad died last year to be closer to my mom and family, but now I’m doing the most exciting AIDS activism of my life. I’m working on the Campaign to End AIDS.
C2EA is a nationwide coalition of people with HIV/AIDS and their supporters that formed early this year —- thousands of us across the country, from gay white men in New York City and San Francisco who’ve survived the disease for 25 years to African Americans from all over the country —- especially the Deep South, where HIV/AIDS is hitting our people really hard. Right now, Black folks make up over half of all new infections in the U.S. -— and I know most of my people can’t afford to pay for HIV/AIDS meds and health care.
That’s why I think HIV/AIDS has become a civil rights issue in the U.S. At the same time that the disease is hitting our people hard, our government is squeezing off funding for programs that keep us alive, like Medicaid and the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. One of C2EA’s front-burner demands for 2005 is full funding for programs like that—and not just for us African Americans, but for our brothers and sisters in Africa, who are dying left and right from this disease.
We also want the government to support HIV prevention based on science —- like condoms and clean needles for drug addicts -—instead of religious ideology, like abstinence-only sex ed classes. Our young people need to get all the facts if we’re going to turn this epidemic around.
But the most exciting part is that, in a few weeks, thousands of us are heading to Washington, D.C., in nine caravans making their way through every state in the country.
I’m one of the organizers of “Waves Across the Ocean,” which starts in San Diego on September 27 and is going all through the southwest and the south on its way up to D.C. -— including a stop in my hometown of Abilene, Tex., where my mom is hosting a rally to End the Silence on HIV/AIDS. In Phoenix, Ariz., four churches are blocking off the streets for a huge outdoor prayer service. In Charlotte, N.C., a thousand of us will march in the streets.
We’ll have events like that all along the way until we get to D.C. on Oct. 8 and spend five days rallying, marching, protesting, lobbying and praying that our government leaders do the right thing when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
You can be part of the Campaign, too. Go to our website or call 1.877.END.AIDS to find out which caravan is stopping in your town (or a town near you) and how you can be involved in those events.
It’s even not too late if you want to come along for the ride or join us in D.C. Or even just make a donation to help folks like me make it to the capital. Ending the epidemic —- for our people and for all people —- won’t be easy, but if we keep the faith and speak as one, we can make those in power take steps to lick AIDS.
Take it from me —- I know a little bit about beating the odds.
Judith Dillard currently lives in Fort Worth, Tex. — not far from Abilene — where she’s determined to end her reputation as the only person living openly with HIV/AIDS.