Although deaths caused by AIDS peaked at 1.9 million worldwide in 2004, the disease remains a leading cause of death globally (Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Global HIV/ AIDS Epidemic, 2018). On Dec. 1 in the Old Bookstore, CHOICE, the LGBTQ Center, ProHealth and The Office of Health Promotion and Education brought attention to the continuing prevalence of the epidemic through their annual event in honor of World AIDS Day. The evening began at 5:30p.m. with the opening reception of “Then and Now: AIDS in Time,” an art exhibit depicting changing perceptions of AIDS throughout history. At 7 p.m., HIV educator Douglas Hill from the organization Love Heals delivered a talk sharing HIV prevention methods, as well as his experience living with HIV.
The Office of Health Education organized the exhibition, which will be on display through Dec. 11. Wellness Peer Educator Maya Allen ’20 explained the reasoning behind supplementing the Love Heals lecture with an art showcase: “We wanted to think of the best way to honor World AIDS Day in a creative form that would leave a lasting impression … When you go to a lecture, you’re only there for about an hour and sometimes only leave with a couple facts and quotations that you kind of remember, whereas people can come to our gallery, take in the art at their own pace, reflect on their interpretations and even revisit later if they want to build upon their viewings and thoughts.”
Fellow Wellness Peer Educator Esperanza Garcia ’20 further clarified her and Allen’s choice of medium: “We think that art is so powerful, and you take a lot away from it, and it’s something you tend to remember; it really makes an impact on you.”
The curators set up the exhibition as a timeline, following the progression of AIDS from its emergence in the early 1980s up to 2017. It showcases a global perspective of AIDS, with the intention of presenting the AIDS epidemic’s significance from a variety of nationalities, ethnicities and genders.
Allen appreciated the intersectionality of the exhibit: “I really like the [works] that have people of color in them, because a person of color’s healthcare experience is always overlooked,” she stated. “HIV is a virus that for the longest time everyone thought exclusively affected white gay men. People rarely consider intersectionality within healthcare and fail to address as well as support black women and trans POCs, for example, who are diagnosed with HIV at higher rates than their white counterparts.”
Campus Health Organization for Information, Contraception and Education (CHOICE) coordinated the lecture portion of the event. Co-Presidents Jenny Brisco ’19 and Austin Gibbs ’19 explained that CHOICE typically brings a speaker from the New York City-based organization Love Heals to commemorate World AIDS Day.
CHOICE Co-Chair of Outreach and Education Lily Feinberg-Eddy ’21 articulated her reaction to Hill’s talk: “I thought he was such a good speaker. This was clearly something so close to his heart. He seemed really approachable and really open in talking about his own experience, and he was really knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS in general. I thought that it was a really cool combination to have … he was really friendly and open and comforting.”
Feinberg-Eddy further disclosed that she hopes for CHOICE to include more people in their events in the future. She explained, “I feel like at places at Vassar, you’re going to seek events like [this] out if you have an interest already in sex and sex education… so you probably have already had access to that kind of information and have been exposed to it. So, I always wonder…if there are ways we can market that event to people who aren’t already really interested in sex and sex education.” Those interested in getting involved with CHOICE are welcome to attend their meetings, which take place every Sunday at 6 p.m. in the LGBTQ center.
The event ultimately sought to help foster awareness, resist prejudice and increase education about HIV/AIDS. Brisco finds World AIDS Day to be an ideal time to take up these initiatives and to encourage others to continue the conversation: “I think that HIV/AIDS comes up once a year…but it really is an issue that is all the time, and I think it’s sort of a golden opportunity to take this day to remind people what’s going on and to engage people on such an important topic that often gets forgotten,” she stated.
Despite HIV/AIDS’ continued devastation of innumerable communities, declining rates in the United States have led to increasing apathy. For this reason, Garcia finds it important to find ways to continue the HIV/AIDS conversation. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s kind of taken a backseat to other diseases that have come up since then, but I think it’s still such an important issue; it still impacts so many lives around the world. But some people just don’t even know that [Dec. 1] is World AIDS Day, or that it even exists. It’s just bringing attention to it, and just letting people know that it’s here and it exists,” she commented.
Allen echoed this sentiment, adding that students have a responsibility to be aware of HIV/AIDS. “It’s showing that people in our community stand in solidarity and will continue to fight prejudice and destigmatize the experience of living with HIV,” she stated. “I feel like people saying that they didn’t know that World AIDS Day is an event no longer serves as a valid excuse. Compared to its early days, there’s now so much more information available about HIV/AIDS. There’s still a lot of work to be done in eliminating the stigmatization and treatment living with the virus, but I think people taking the time to educate themselves and being willing to have some possibly uncomfortable conversations with other people about it are steps in the right direction.”