Hear Me Out
|by Mubarak Dahir
Tanya Wilkins always loved being an aunt to her sister's three children. In fact, Wilkins was intimately involved in the children's lives. Until about four months ago.
It was then that a judge in Jackson, Mississippi, used ignorance and fear and prejudice to literally build a wall between the children and their aunt.
Wilkins' sister, Keri Rowell, is in the process of getting a divorce. This past March, Rowell was granted an extension of a temporary custody ruling giving her custody of her three children.
But the extension came with a shocking condition: Rowell could keep custody of the kids only if she kept them from physically interacting with their aunt, Tanya Wilkins.
The reason for this stringent requirement? Tanya Wilkins is HIV-positive.
In the face of her divorce, Keri Rowell had planned to live with her sister, so they could provide each other with both economic and emotional support.
But the judge's ruling prevented the two women from forming the family structure they believed would be best for them, and for the kids.
Since the ruling, the children have not been able to hug or be hugged by the aunt they love.
Instead, they were reduced to merely waving to her through a window.
The sad tale of Tanya Wilkins and her nieces and nephews is alarmingly familiar to that of a young teenage boy in Kokomo, Indiana, named Ryan White.
When White, a hemophiliac, was diagnosed with AIDS at age 13, his school district tried to prevent him from returning to classes.
After the boy's mother took the school district to court, it agreed to allow White to come back to class under several restrictions:
Ryan White had to use a separate bathroom from all the other kids in the school. And he would be given disposable silverware in the school cafeteria, rather than the regular knives and forks and spoons the other kids used.
But even those conditions weren't enough to quell the prejudice and hysteria in his school and his community.
At school, other kids vandalized his locker, spray-painting the word "FAG" on it. When he went out to restaurants, the dishes he ate off were often thrown away, rather than washed and re-used.
One malicious neighbor even shot a bullet into the family's home, as a symbol that they were not welcome in Kokomo.
Of course, Ryan White's brave struggle took place back in 1985. The fact that Tanya Wilkins, along with Keri Rowell and her kids, are facing similarly ridiculous prejudice based on the same ignorance and fear some twenty years later is a sad marker of just how little society has progressed in its attitudes towards people with HIV in the past two decades.
No one understands more than gay people the level of prejudice that comes with HIV and AIDS.
In the early years of the disease, having AIDS and being gay were inextricably linked in the public conscience. There was even a time HIV was called "the gay cancer," or GRIDgay- related immune deficiency.
In the 25 years since the disease first began being recognized, science has come a long way.
We now know the virus that causes AIDS. We have better drugs that have revolutionized life for people with HIV, not just by making their lives longer, but also by making their lives substantially better. Ongoing research is holding out hope for better medications, and maybe, in the distant future, a vaccine.
But unfortunately, social attitudes have not progressed as much as the science has.
When I first heard the news that Keri Rowell's children were not allowed to touch their aunt because she has HIV, I wasn't quite sure whether or not the story was a hoax.
Surely, I thought, there can't be any adult in America much less someone as responsible and educated as a judge who doesn't know that HIV is not a casually transmitted disease, and that it can't be contracted by mere physical touch.
But as I came to realize that the news story was accurate, my disbelief turned to anxiety.
If in this day and age a judge could still make such a ridiculous ruling based on such antiquated, unfounded misinformation, what kinds of attitudes and prejudices against people with HIV must some parts of the general populace still harbor?
No wonder so many people with HIV and AIDS still guard that information with such caution.
The fact that such misinformation could be used to make such an important decision about people's lives and well-being speaks to the need for more, not less, HIV and AIDS education. It also shows that the kind of HIV and AIDS education we offer needs to be more specific and detailed, rather than vague and glossed over, as conservatives have recently been successful in doing in the past few years, particularly in the schools.
Luckily, there is a happy ending to this story.
At the end of July, the custody restriction that Keri Rowell could not let her children have physical contact with their aunt because of her HIV-status was reversed.
Lambda Legal took on the case, and with the help of an infectious diseases expert who testified that the children were not at risk from their aunt, the organization was able to get the restriction lifted.
Now, Rowell and Wilkins can move in together, and form the kind of family they choose.
And the children will once again be able to hug the aunt they love.
Mubarak Dahir, can be reached at MubarakDahir@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 10 July 29, 2005