University students have hosted performances of the popular stage play “The Vagina Monologues” for years. But on Friday, the University’s Black Student Union and the National Council of Negro Women teamed up to present “The HIV Monologues.”
Presented in the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the production aimed to educate students about people who are HIV-positive and destigmatize common stereotypes affiliated with the disease.
The monologues were affiliated with World AIDS Day — an international movement typically held on Dec. 1 that calls on the world community to support those diagnosed with HIV, remember those who have died from the disease and rally support behind efforts aimed at prevention and treatment.
Friday’s event featured a mix of spoken-word monologues and personal accounts of those who have been affected by HIV in some way. This is the second time the BSU and NCNW have organized the HIV Monologues; the first occurred in winter 2014.
LSA juniors Williamena Kwapo and Micah Griggs, members of the NCNW and organizers of the event, said they decided to bring the event back after realizing how important it was to discuss HIV issues with the campus community.
Kwapo noted that college students rarely discuss the large-scale effect of HIV, and Griggs said this silence often lends itself to the recycling of uninformed, negative stereotypes.
“There’s definitely a negative connotation associated with HIV, and there’s definitely a stigma with HIV,” Griggs said. “This event’s purpose and its mission are to destigmatize those negative perceptions.”
As a result, Kwapo said, the event was meant to provide a constructive forum where students could be exposed to others’ nuanced, firsthand experiences with HIV.
“We want it to be a learning experience, and we really aim for students to know actual facts about the disease and to not look at someone who’s HIV positive and just assume the worst of them,” she said.
Among these speakers was Leon Golson, the director of prevention programs at Unified — an organization formed with the merger of AIDS Partnership Michigan and the state’s HIV/AIDS Resource Center.
According to a press release, Unified serves 10 counties in Southeast Michigan where 63 percent of Michigan residents living with HIV reside.”
Golson, who is afflicted with HIV, shared his experiences with the diagnosis, and provided tips for preventing the spread of HIV.
“That’s what I have in my body right now, HIV, slowly but surely trying to chip away from my immune system,” he said. “A healthy T-cell count runs anywhere from about 800 to 1,200. My T-cell count is holding steady between 700 to 800, so far so good.”
Golson said while most people know that wearing a condom or abstaining from sex can prevent HIV, diagnoses are still widespread, despite this knowledge.
“Why is it that about a month ago we had to diagnose a young person?” he said. “This young man was 24 years old and we’ve been studying this for 30 years. He knew the answer to (how to prevent HIV), so what is going on? There’s a lot more to it than just using condoms. There’s a lot more to it than just saying no and it’s those issues that we need to talk about. Being HIV positive does not take place in a specific vacuum.”
Golson encouraged students to share information they learned from his presentation with their friends, and with as many others as possible.
“One of my take-home messages for this group is, first of all, please share this information with the folks that aren’t here,” he said. “This auditorium should be filled to capacity, but it just reflects where people are in regards to this issue.”
Kwapo was also a speaker at the event, sharing anecdotes from a trip she took to Ghana. While there, Kwapo said, she was surprised by how little the disease was talked about given that HIV has significantly impacted the country.
“What I want people to get from this event is that it’s OK to talk about it,” she said. “We talk about things like cancer all the time, so why is this disease such a horrible thing to even mention?”
Griggs said the event’s monologue format conveys the disease from a more personal, human source and, therefore, was intended to be more compelling than a normal lecture might be.
“We definitely wanted to take a different approach through creative expression, to make people more comfortable and also to tell a story,” she said. “We hope that people enjoy these monologues, but that they also learn a lot and then teach it to their friends and whatever community that they belong to.”
LSA junior Kennedy Clark said she thought the performance touched on issues relevant to the campus community.
“I feel like we still think of AIDS and HIV as something that’s part of the past rather than something that’s still an issue, despite its history,” she said. “It’s important, just because of the fact that we’re risky individuals and we’re in college, and I just think it’s a good time and place.”
LSA junior Merin Paul attended the event in preparation for an Alternative Spring Break trip focused on HIV and AIDS.
“The reason a lot of people don’t know about it is because there’s such a stigma attached to the whole issue,” she said. “The stigma is not knowing how you can be protected, how can you prevent the disease and how you can live with HIV successfully for a long time. So much has changed since when people didn’t know how to treat it and people just spread awareness and learn more about it.”
Paul said it was important for college students to attend the event in order to put HIV-positive individuals and their experiences into perspective.
“You’re meeting so many people in college every single day,” she said. “You don’t know their backgrounds, but having HIV doesn’t mean you can’t be friends with someone or can’t interact with someone. I think that’s something that everyone should understand and accept.”