Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Being Heard - HIV/AIDS Lobby Day

by ENC volunteer, Gabe
Personal advocacy like Gabriel's makes a big difference - Ian

It’s a beautiful day as I set off with the crisp, gentle, snowflakes flashing past my car as I travel from the mountains to Raleigh on April 7, 2009. I make it to Baptist Hospital at Wake Forest University, to my 8 am doctor’s appointment an 30 minutes early (unusual for me). I arrive to the same friendly, up-to-date staff that treated me two years ago, when I first conjured up the gall to go to a doctor to check and monitor my status.

I am HIV-positive and this is a routine three month check up, I am so lucky to be able to attend. Thankfully this appointment’s cost will be covered by the Ryan White Care Act. My doctor’s appointment and the lobby day for HIV/AIDS and the Healthy Youth Act end and begin simultaneously, and I am left with another, even longer, drive to Raleigh from Winston-Salem.

I set off on another round of driving and parking, and I search for and find the legislative building. I am hesitant to arrive late to such an important meeting, and consider turning back. However, I overcome my fear and walk up the large red-carpeted stairs. At the top, I am greeted by a trusty Equality North Carolina worker. I sign in with her as I receive a packet of information briefing me on lobby tips, comprehensive safe sex and HIV/AIDS statistics, and directions to find where the group is currently meeting.

After being a Senate Page of the Week in 2000 for then Watauga County's then-Senator Virginia Foxx, I believe I can hold my own maneuvering the maze of offices and corridors of the legislative building.

After accidentally walking in a circle twice, and being three hours late to the meeting scheduled with my House representative, Cullie Tarleton, I interpret the signs in my mind, and they tell me, “I planned too much for one day, and should head back the way I came, as to not make more mistakes. I am so disrespectful for showing up late.” These negative, self-defeating thoughts flood my head as I walk back to where I parked. I tell myself, “I should’ve known better than driving four-and-a-half hours to tell my story to people who have heard it all before.” I figure I’ve set myself up for failure and need to try again next time, when I’ve set myself up for success.

As I sit in the car, I notice the school groups walking around taking tours to learn about their state's proud capitol, and realize that these kids are the reason I am here. I notice I share the same desire to learn as I watch their eyes, which are full of amazement. I also take into account the many doctors, case workers, and other silent positive friends need our voice and need to be heard to ears that will listen. I know that if I had been properly educated about sex and been around open, safe dialogue where I could talk about my problems, I might not be in the situation I am in. For these children, future children, and myself, I owe a visit to share my unique story of how HIV has affected my life.

I walk proudly with a smile, re-tuck my shirt, and splash my face with water. I return to the lobby and find the group I set out to find all day long, others just like myself who have personal knowledge of this affliction. I set off determined to speak to someone and make a difference.

Surprisingly I easily find the office number of Representative Tarleton, ask his assistant if he has a quick moment to converse, then I sit and wait. When I finally meet Cullie Tarleton, he greets me with a smile and seems to genuinely care for the reason for my visit.

To begin, I thank him for being a proud sponsor of the School Violence Prevention Act, which protects a list of enumerated classes from harassment in school. He responds by telling me that major opposition is being received from parents. I am astonished to learn that parents don’t want safe school environments. I also ask him to support the Healthy Youth Act, a new bill being debated on the House floor which if passed will offer a two-track system to sex education.

I tell him a story of when I was physically harassed, and how HIV has affected my life. I tell him how I believe we can stop the growing number of people with HIV by educating them early on about the subject, and including kids in school in educational conversations about topics they know little or nothing about. I tell my legislator how these two bills go hand in hand, how kids (until they feel school is a safe environment) will not be able to talk openly about themselves and in turn will find other means to discover themselves. I don’t want others to have to learn by making the same mistakes myself and others have made. I want them to learn by having an open mind and being knowledgeable about the subject before it becomes an issue.

To my surprise, Cullie Tarleton responded with, “I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with these issues. I personally have also been affected indirectly and wish the same as you for our youth.” He tells me, “Thank you for your courage to be open. I do stand with you on the subject. In fact, you’re preaching to the choir.” These statements of acceptance brought me great relief.

To know that a voice and perspective like mine is represented in our state senate makes me want to be more active in advocacy, which makes me feel more important as a voter and a person. No doubt, this will not be the last time I go to speak with my legislators. Hopefully in the future, I will not travel alone, and will bring a choir of voices from the mountains to the Capitol.

I continue to call Cullie Tarleton and Senator Steve Goss, to ask them to support these bills. Hopefully soon, we will see change happening in our schools, workplace, and community.