|A 'Flare' for HIV education|
by Terrence Chappell, Windy City Times
Activists, leaders, local personalities, and organizations gathered for "United in HIV: Taking Control Through Unity and Advocacy" June 14 at Sidetrack—a tweet-up in celebration and unity for HIV/AIDS outreach, research, and, above all, knowing one's status. The event was in recognition of National HIV Testing Day, June 27.
Produced and emceed by performer Cyon Flare, the event was a tribute to the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus ( CBGMC ) and Rae Lewis-Thornton for their HIV/AIDS-awareness initiatives among the Black and Black LGBT communities.
Chicago Department of Public Health ( CDPH ) Commissioner Bechara Choucair and members of his staff, including Assistant Commissioner for STD/ HIV/ AIDS Policy and Prevention Programs Christopher Brown, were at the event. Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez also stopped by after her own pride reception at the Center on Halsted.
Lewis-Thornton was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1987 at age 23. She made the transition to AIDS in 1992. Since then, she has used her status and experience as an educational platform to advocate for HIV/AIDS testing and empower the LGBT Black community, in particular heterosexual women life herself. She has spoken at a number of institutions and universities, has been featured in publications, and has won the Chicago Emmy for "Living with AIDS," for Channel 2 in 1995. Lewis-Thornton, who was in the hospital hours before the event, was happy to be a part of the evening and said that even though the event was a step in the right direction, it's just the beginning.
"I hope that people will walk away from this event knowing that we are united, that we are one, and that HIV affects all of us. It can infect all of us and affects all of us. If we're really going to get a handle on this in the African-American community, then we will have to work together," said Lewis-Thornton.
CBGMC's Craig Johnson, who also works as a community health promoter at Rush University Medical Center, represented his organization at the event as a special guest speaker. Johnson sits on the policy and advisory committee for the CBGMC. He shared with guests the importance of getting tested for HIV, the commonality between gay Black men and Black women regarding HIV/AIDS, and breaking down the stigma of HIV/AIDS in the Black community. He worked with Flare and Lewis-Thornton on the event with a mission to bring together different groups of people that shared common ground on HIV/AIDS.
"We wanted to create an opportunity to bring all the audiences together for an awareness event specifically about HIV/AIDS. National HIV Testing Day was such an opportune moment to host this event. There's about 12 awareness dates throughout the year that target different segments of the community. So, we wanted to use this event to bring everyone together and unite everyone for a common cause," said Johnson.
Flare worked closely with Lewis-Thornton, CBGMC, Sidetrack and other local organizations to organize United in HIV. Flare, who was diagnosed HIV-positive, said that the event was born out of a personal vision. He was "very humbled" by the dozens of people who attended the event.
"I wanted guests to see people supporting getting tested. I wanted guests to see people supporting people who are living with HIV and AIDS. One of the things I see in the Black community is that it's very difficult to even say the letters HIV, or even have an open dialogue about it. The goal of this event was to create a safe space to get tested and to talk about HIV/AIDS," said Flare.
Flare expressed how "overwhelmingly wowed and humbled" he was over the success of the event.
Art Johnston, co-owner of Sidetrack and co-founder of Equality Illinois, said it was important to host the event since HIV/AIDS is such a hot-button issue among the community.
"It was a pleasure for Sidetrack to host an event that touches so many parts of our community. We are seeing different people of our community that are coming together for this event in ways that don't happen enough. We are thrilled to be involved," said Johnston.
DJ Lora Branch spun top-40 music and classics, while Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) , a community partner for the event, carried out HIV testing for guests and offered on-site special services and counseling to those testing positive. Guests were encouraged to tweet the event to their followers by using #UnitedInHIV. There was a $10 optional donation to benefit CBGMC and Rae Lewis Lewis-Thornton's HIV/AIDS efforts. More than 40 community partners sponsored the event including Center on Halsted, Equality Illinois, GO Pride Corporation, Windy City Media Group, Hydrate, 50 Faggots and a host of others.
"I think it's so important that people are aware and people take the proper steps to prevention," Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez told the crowd. "No matter what community you're from, we have to make sure we take care of our health and ourselves. We need to spread the awareness."
Both Flare and Lewis-Thornton plan to take what they learned from the past event and continue the getting tested tweet-ups in other markets.
Photos by Tracy Baim
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