” So says the man who’s been handing out free HIV tests in Orlando’s Little Haiti neighborhood for two years now — and plans to keep doing so.
“He’s the one people remember,” says anti-poverty activist Patrick Murphy. “When they see a young man giving out free HIV tests, and they see a young man has AIDS, people sometimes say, ‘Oh, I knew that when I met that young man he had AIDS.'”
We don’t say these things often in New York City, where HIV/AIDS workers have been finding further ways to assert their legitimacy: Namely, in recent years, spreading free HIV tests. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg first took office, in 2002, Mayor Ed Koch praised “hundreds of thousands of once-ignored sick New Yorkers who get their health checked.” He cited the city’s estimated 150,000 HIV-positive workers. But overtime — if you count the thousands of free HIV tests given at the hospitals that once served those workers — that number has ballooned to well over four million.
It’s no accident that HIV/AIDS workers are still so overwhelmingly male. Ronald Baum, the executive director of the National AIDS Trust, says workers are “more aggressive about the results of the tests, and they feel to themselves, in the words of Steven Stoll, that they are better people.” In the same way, comments Murphy have also posed in Little Haiti are echoed among New Yorkers about those driven by HIV/AIDS: “They’re at the bedside. Basically. When people come in the door, they pretend that they’re well.”
So what happens when a bearded man who shouts free tests to a roomful of Haitian ladies or a man whose hooded sweatshirt, turban, and microsuede shoes suggest a warrior from a Buddhist monastery starts giving out free tests in New York’s white middle class? Since 2010 the city has noted and widely publicized every instance of HIV/AIDS worker distributing free HIV tests, and it has embedded a Web page about the free-test program at large into the city’s municipal set of Web sites. It’s the reason why when the good Samaritan in North Carolina said, “Do you know anyone with HIV?” — or any other medical question, for that matter — he was greeted online by the simple, “For help finding a free test. *OK — if you don’t have HIV at all, are having symptoms, or have even suspected you might have HIV.”
These regulations aren’t just setting a precedent, they’re also making a point. Doctors and nurses aren’t making approaches to the homeless accepting of the city’s treatments for homelessness — and neither should visitors to the city’s South Brooklyn Houses, as police officers on patrol were acting with “discretion” Friday after finding two men having sex on the lawn. The same goes for the people who patronize businesses such as 18th Street YMCA — some of whom may be had on a paid basis — to find something to do when shit is pretty tough on the inside. The New York Police Department’s recently released patrol guide warns officers to beware of every possible plea for help — “Whether it’s in a cab, on the corner or on our lunch break,” in other words — but never the other way around.
It could be argued that these regulations also contribute to the fallout from the Garner case, where the marchers could easily have gotten arrested for their unwanted company. But when someone has HIV and he or she is sober and seeks help, what precisely could possibly be against law enforcement enforcing the civil liberties of that person, with a heightened sense of urgency and courtesy? Such a law limits that right and loudly asserts it, thereby adding an element of moral authority; surely anyone whose [pre-PAGE!] consideration of morality seems unwavering would approve of such official appeals to compassion?
And though it’s clear that politicians shouldn’t be interfering in black lives, do they have a right to inform them of their consequences down here in the safety of D.C. when they’re vulnerable enough to need it? They may not even know it, but they know that people with HIV are vulnerable and very sick, and so they are possibly losing their life out of a sense of personal responsibility — exactly the kind of insecurity that’s reactivated discussions about homophobia and parental neglect. The way people living with AIDS are doing their best anyway is good enough for a city dating back to the French Revolution (which was a self-identified feminist movement); on top of that, it’s what anyone who cares about equal treatment should wish for all of us living inside the power structures that can easily absolve us of such obligations.