In a time where people still stigmatize individuals living with HIV/AIDS, those four words can change worlds.
This past weekend, Iris House staff members Maria Nogueira, Yolanda Diaz and Antionettea Etienne participated in the "Red, White & U HIV Anti-Stigma Photos Shoot and Campaign" to help end HIV/AIDS Related Stigma.
Though all three openly live with HIV, this project gave them a chance to help put a glamorous face on their status. “They brought everything for us, clothing, jewelry and shoes. We had a stylist, a makeup artist and a photographer transforming our outsides to match the strong, passionate women we are on the inside,” said Nogeira, a case manager in Iris House’s Harm Reduction program.
The women got dressed, made up and styled in our West Side Office, all the while praying, laughing and inspiring each other with familiar and new stories of their struggles living with the virus and of just being women.
The team from the campaign took photos of these women and others at locations around our neighborhood, and as a group went down to the Conservatory Garden in New York’s Central Park. As they were getting ready for the shoot, people on the street were watching and wondering what was happening.
A group of four young women from Argentina asked what was going on, and they immediately asked if they could take photos with the women. They jumped right in, while singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and took a number of photos mixing and mingling with the group of ladies. They confessed that HIV was not openly discussed in Argentina and that they were so proud of these women.
A woman and her husband from Poland came up to Maria on a bench and asked what they were filming. When she was told that these were openly HIV+ women doing a photo shoot to help battle stigma and discrimination around issues of HIV, the woman asked Maria, “Can I hug you?”
Many women at Iris House were diagnosed in a time when no one would touch them, when separate plates and silverware were maintained for family members living with HIV, and when the fear of contagion was at its height. Sadly, there are people who still feel that way about those living with HIV, but those four words, “Can I hug you?” are signs that the world is changing.
“It was a really great day,” said Yolanda Diaz, Iris House Health Educator. “I think that just having women coming together – not only the models, but also the artists who donated their time for the cause – but just to talk about HIV and anti-stigma was something very extraordinary. It also gives funders a chance to see how women living with HIV and AIDS are in the community. How women’s lives matter. We know that women’s lives matter, but we need an awareness that funding must exist across populations, not just for specific programs.
“It was a spiritual and empowering afternoon,” said health educator Antionettea Etienne, “Because we, the New York warrior women as I call us, never have a chance to just get together and network amongst ourselves. We’re always working or teaching. Just to be still, enjoy each other’s presence and --- how can I put this – it was like a pajama party. We discussed our children, our mates. We didn’t talk about our jobs. There was a lot of love in the room, remembrance of sisters that have passed whom we miss, and a unification. We were all scared, some by stigma, some for the future of women with HIV, and some – I’m talking about myself – of being feminine. I don’t know how to do that, and I was scared.”
This project is the brainchild of Andrea Johnson, a Native GHETTO (Giving Help Everywhere To Those that are Oppressed) Philadelphian, is the Founder/CEO of GIRL U CAN DO IT, INC. (“GUCDII Family”) a non-profit community based organization that provides comprehensive health and awareness education and prevention services for disadvantaged youths, young adults and families.
"I, too, am a woman living with HIV," said Johnson in response to this photoshoot, "And want to, through this project/campaign give women a voice and be able through their beauty to educate as to why they are standing up to END STIGMA. I think we all, models and staff, got more than we were thought out of this."
This project hopes to have fifteen women from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania involved in photo shoots by World AIDS Day, and will launch an awareness campaign in conjunction with this annual event.
For more information, or to become a sponsor of this amazing project, visit www.girlucandoit.org