Wednesday, June 29, 2011

6th Annual Iris House Women's Conference

On June 24th and 25th, The New York Academy of Medicine hosted the 6th Annual Iris House Women as the Face of AIDS Summit. Iris House (, a center for women living with HIV/AIDS, brought together the leading activists in HIV/AIDS prevention from up and down the east coast…and Get Down PSA was present to partake in what was a very successful summit! The theme of this year’s event was "Beyond the Diagnosis". According to Iris House Chair, Ingrid Floyd, one of the many goals of the summit was to help those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS realize that they have every opportunity to live healthy and fulfilling lives beyond their diagnosis.

The first day of the event focused specifically on how women and girls, globally and domestically, receive education and treatment about HIV/AIDS. The opening speaker, Dr. Gina Brown, Coordinator for Microbicides Research and Women and Girls Research, provided shocking statistics behind this epidemic. According to Dr. Brown, in New York City alone, 93% of all new female diagnoses are African American and Latina women. Dr. Brown concluded her presentation by introducing the latest trends in HIV prevention, as well as updates on the latest vaccine and microbicide trials.

Following Dr. Brown were Matthew Lesieur, of Village Care of New York and National Association of People with AIDS, and Sean Barry, of VOCAL-NY. Both men worked in conjunction to provide information on the latest federal, state and local policies affecting those living with HIV/AIDS. According to Lesieur, the United States has hit a debt limit of $14.3 trillion, a fact that has directly affected services such as Medicaid and Medicare, the biggest payers of care for people with HIV.

The summit also featured the Leading Ladies Programs Across the United States, which works with leaders of faith-based-organizations and assists them in providing HIV education and awareness within their congregations. The Leading Ladies Program creates ambassadors who, in turn, develop workshops targeted specifically towards female congregants. The panel of ladies explained that quite often, women are discouraged from getting tested if they are married or are involved in a monogamous relationship. What these women brought to light, however, was the fact that one’s martial status should not inhibit them from getting tested. Everyone should get tested and everyone should know his or her status.

The summit then divided into five breakout sessions, each of which included a panel of pastors and parishioners to help fuel heated discussions on the philosophy of safe sex and condom use. One session, titled Faith Based Organizations: The Condom Debate, addressed how FBOs within the African American and Latino communities deal with HIV/AIDS related issues. According to Rev. Gerald L. Thomas, PhD, of Shiloh Baptist Church in Plainfield, NJ, it is not the church’s responsibility to distribute condoms.

“I don’t believe Jesus would be healing a leper on one hand, while handing out a condom on the other,” said Rev. Thomas. His view, though not accepted by many, provoked panel members and audience members alike to vocalize their opinions regarding this heated topic of debate. Most people seemed to side with Leatrice Wactor, a representative from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NY. According to Ms. Wactor, “Folks in the church are having sex. We don’t want to admit it, but that’s the reality. And nobody’s gonna stop simply because you said so or I said so.” Like every other panel member besides Rev. Thomas, Ms. Wactor convinced the pastor at her church to allow for condom distribution.

There is no doubt that both sides of The Condom Debate presented extremely valid arguments. In my opinion, Ms. Wactor couldn’t be more right in her claim about the “reality” of this situation. People are having sex and have been doing so since the beginning of time…and that is a fact that will not change. What we now need is for people to act responsibly and take advantage of the knowledge we have to prevent the further spread of this epidemic. Turning our backs on this situation won’t solve any problems, but putting on a condom will.

Day one of the 6th Annual Iris House Women as the Face of AIDS Summit was a success in more ways than one. The various speakers and panel members helped to ensure that all those present gained a true understanding of exactly how this epidemic continues to affect our community…and that as women, we must stand together to make sure that our voices are heard.

-Rebecca Florczyk
GET DOWN Youth Blog Squad

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