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I Was Diagnosed With AIDS At The Age Of 22

Her Voice

I met him in a nightclub parking lot in Houston, Texas. I was 19 years old. At the time, I was a sophomore at Sam Houston State, planning to pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha and ride out my college experience. But, I was also at that point in life where I longed to have Prince Charming sweep me off my feet so we could live happily ever after. Admittedly, I felt that without this element of my life, I was incomplete. I was a broken, lost, and scattered soul - not at all prepared for what I was about to endure.

He was a well-known Houston area music executive. He was charming and well-connected and from the moment we met, we were inseparable. He introduced me to my first job in the music world as a promotions assistant and I eventually climbed the ladder and became a manager. Being around musicians wasn't new to me. My father was a successful writer and I grew up around artists like Mint Condition and Prince. But the hip hop world was an entirely new beast, and I was completely submerged in it.

Our life was filled with power, sex, drugs, and strip clubs.

I got anything I wanted - designer clothes and shoes and entry into the hottest parties. I was rubbing elbows with the biggest names in music and the lifestyle pulled me in. So, when the cheating, lies, disrespect, emotional and mental abuse started, I had no exit plan because I constantly pacified the severity of our unhealthy relationship. Our relationship came to an abrupt end when I found out through a mutual acquaintance that he had impregnated another woman. That was the last straw and I finally left him.

A few months later, I passed out in the shower.

When I woke up, the paramedics were doing their best to keep me conscious. After being released from the hospital that day, I went back home still not feeling like myself. I had chills so bad, I was shaking like a leaf. I had a fever of 105 and I felt as if my body was starting to leave earth, and I was powerless to stop it. I tried over-the-counter medicines to bring my fever down, but nothing worked.

Eventually, I was rushed back to the hospital where I fell into a partial coma.

This time, I was in the hospital for almost a month when my mother's long-time physician walked into my room and stood over my bed. "So, about your AIDS virus," the doctor said.

I looked at her in a panic of confusion.

I was on a breathing machine so words were not an option at the time. I could only shake my head over and over - no, no, no. She said I had full-blown AIDS and only 2 t-cells remaining. Things were not looking good for me. At that point, a million questions ran through my head. How will my life move forward? Will she tell my mother? When the doctor left my room, I immediately went numb. Before I could process everything, two social workers came in and asked me to write down all of my sexual partners. They handed me some forms and I felt like I was signing my life away.

A month and a half later, I was finally released from the hospital.

Immediately, my priority became advocacy. I never wanted another woman to feel how I felt the day I was given my diagnosis, but I didn't know where to begin. Who was to blame? Was he to blame for being careless and abusive? Was I to blame because I chose not to ask his status? Either way, everything in my life was changing. I vowed to share my story with the world and inspire others about the importance of self-love.

As my advocacy journey took off, I veered further away from my life in the music industry. A friend convinced me to confront my ex-boyfriend and share my truth. When I did, he was hardly receptive. Even as I walked away, he disrespectfully called out to me and said I should give him another chance because my ass got fatter. I was disgusted, but proud of myself for standing up to him, telling him what he'd done and showing him that he hadn't broken me.

Now, I travel the country speaking to people of all ages about what it means to live with AIDS. I'm still baffled by the level of unawareness associated with the stigma of AIDS and HIV. Often, I get asked questions that remind me how far we have to go as a society to learn about this virus, which is the first step in eradication. I've been living with AIDS for 11 years and my virus is currently undetectable, which means that is is absolutely untransmittable.

People I encounter are often shocked that I'm still alive.

Did you take the same thing Magic Johnson took? Are you rich?

It's still a little known fact that medicine has come a long way, and that staying on top of your medication and taking good care of your health can help people living with AIDS and HIV live long and happy lives without the threat of spreading the virus to their loved ones.

They are even more amazed to find out that I have a partner, and that we are planning a family together. It is possible, however, for those living with the virus to find love. It is possible to have a loving relationship with a supportive partner and also have the AIDS virus. I'm thankful to have a man in my life who, when faced with the reality of my situation, did not walk away. He came to the doctor with me, asked his questions, did his research, and stayed by my side.

Looking back on this journey, I don't blame myself but I do take full responsibility for my part and for not loving myself enough to walk away from a man who was not worthy of me.

Not only do I dedicate my life to educating people on the facts behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but I also facilitate self love workshops. This is what it took for me to find this incredible understanding of my own power and of my unstoppable ability to push through.

We are never defined by the mistakes we have made, but by our ability to build ourselves up despite them.

To learn more about Kecia Johnson and her HIV/AIDS advocacy work, visit her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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