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I'm The CEO Of The Black AIDS Institute, Here To Tell You...We're In Trouble

There is no way to end HIV in America without ending HIV in Black America.

As Told To

As Told To is a recurring segment on xoNecole where real women are given a platform to tell their stories in first-person narrative as told to a writer.

This is Raniyah Copeland's story, as told to Charmin Michelle.

My voice...is thunderous. And I keep it that way.

I regularly call out pharmaceutical companies, research institutions, and HIV organizations who have leadership and boards that do not look like or come from the communities that they serve. I get to connect with people across the country and the world in efforts to end HIV in Black communities. I meet with Black faith leaders, community activists researchers, Black leaders in federal government, and so many more.

Community is a huge component within the HIV movement, and I love being in the forefront. I proudly do this work every day.

I'm the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. A SoCal native, I currently living in South LA with my amazing children and my husband. I come from a big family (I'm one of five kids), my parents are active and prominent members of the Nation of Islam, which is why we relocated from the East Coast to California. Growing up as a Black Muslim, my Blackness and the oppressive systems within the U.S. were always centered in the experiences that we had.

From a very young age, my parents explained how almost every oppression that Black people experience (increased rates of poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality) was linked back to how anti-Blackness showed up in overt and covert ways to shape every aspect of Black life.I was taught that we had to give forward to honor those who had given so much, to know the freedoms we did have. Over time, I saw the way inadequate health systems were directly impacting the well-being and length of Black lives. I knew I wanted my future contributions to consist of ensuring Black people could live long and healthy lives.

I attended UC Berkeley for undergrad and studied public health and African American studies, with plans of becoming a doctor. During that time, I studied more about HIV and Black communities and saw how heavily linked HIV rates were to homophobia, intimate partner violence, the 'war against drugs', and so many other things that I didn't know impacted HIV rates. After undergrad, I enrolled in a post baccalaureate program, where I was taking science classes in preparation to apply for med school, while working as a health educator at Planned Parenthood. Here, is where much of my outlook on the virus had developed.

So ladies, let's talk about it...

I once delivered an HIV-positive test result to a young Black gay man. When he was told he was HIV-positive, he was not surprised. He actually thought because he was Black and gay, it was inevitable that he would acquire HIV. I was saddened and devastated on so many levels.

You see, for Black folks, our health is so much larger than any individual decision we make. HIV is one of the most significant diseases where those who have historically been given the least, are the most impacted.

When I found out about the Black AIDS Institute, I knew the organization was a place where I could live out my personal values and make a true change as it pertains to the health of Black communities. It's amazing that almost four decades into this pandemic, we can say we have the tools to end HIV within our lifetime, which from a public health perspective, that is extraordinary!

However, there is no way to end HIV in America without ending HIV in Black America.

And in order to end HIV in Black America, we have to respond to the systemic reasons Black people have HIV at such high rates. It's not because we have sex with more people, or use more drugs. Nor does it have anything do to with our individual behavior. We have a higher rate of HIV in Black communities because HIV flourishes in systems of oppression. Read that again and again—as many times as you need—HIV flourishes in systems of oppression. If we can respond to the roots of systemic racism in this country, we will not only end HIV, but also end health inequities that plague Black Americans.

This has proven difficult because we don't like to talk about it. We rule out that this is a true pandemic, one of our firsts. And ladies, as CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the most shocking statistic in the HIV pandemic as it relates to us, is that while new HIV infections among Black women have declined 21 percent from 2010-2016, Black women still account for 6/10 new HIV cases.

And we're concerned.

Not that the rates have declined, this is always great news. But those of us who work in the HIV field worry that the success that we've seen with decreasing new HIV cases, will be reversed because healthcare access may be limited due to COVID. In the last six months, COVID-19 has transformed the world, infecting more than 15 million people and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The virus also has had an indelible impact not only on the well-being of people living with HIV/AIDS, but potentially on the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic itself.

I think back to the time when Olga Osminkina-Jones, senior vice president for the consumer goods company, Reckitt Benckiser, said during the 23rd International AIDS Conference:

"COVID is threatening to erase a whole generation of effort that we have put into the fight against AIDS and HIV."

An entire generation of work, ladies. So, like her, I am well aware of the importance of having, and continuing, this conversation.

Why? Because here are the harsh facts, the COVID-19 crisis has drummed up another familiar theme: like HIV/AIDS, Black people being disproportionately impacted.

Black people acquire COVID at rates 2.6 higher than our white counterparts, are hospitalized at rates 4.7 higher than our white counterparts, and die at rates 2.1 higher than our white counterparts.

All is not lost, I have so many wonderful stories about working in HIV advocacy. One of the best things about my job is how I get to connect with people across the country and the world in efforts to end HIV in Black communities. One of my favorite experiences is when I get to meet with Black mothers who have been impacted by HIV. I've met Black mothers who are living with HIV and have taken great care and sacrifice to birth their children, most of whom are HIV-free, by engaging in care systems.

I've met many Black mothers who are boldly loving their son or trans daughter and are living with HIV. They are supporting and shielding their children through the stigma they experience. I've met Black mothers who lost their children in the HIV movement and have dedicated their lives to ensuring that others' children can live long and healthy lives. As a mother myself, the courage that Black mothers have shown in the HIV movement gives me chills.

--

In the end, the work I put into this space, will hopefully one day, allow my boys to live in a world where they don't have a fear of acquiring HIV. I hope my legacy is one where I contribute to a world where Black people are able to live long and healthy lives, free of stigma, and where Black health and well-being, are paramount.

To keep up with Raniyah, follow her on Instagram @raniyahcopeland. Also, visit blackaids.org for more ways to get involved with the Black AIDS Institute.

Feature image courtesy of Raniyah Copeland

When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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