A Pioneer Activist on World AIDS Day

Debra Fraser-Howze talks about the rowdy, heart-wrenching early days in the fight against the epidemic.

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DFH: Twenty-five years ago, I would visit black gay men in the hospital, and some of their mothers wouldn't even come to see them. Since then, the education around this disease has gotten so much better. From 1981 to 1983, I held babies at Harlem Hospital that would be there today and gone tomorrow. They were called the border babies, left by mothers who would deliver, discover that they had full-blown AIDS and would leave the baby at the hospital because they felt that that was the best place for them.

We were so unaware and uneducated about this disease. These babies were piling up, and the hospital staff was begging people to come hold them because newborns also die from lack of being held. It was an excruciating part of the epidemic. Both black and white AIDS victims would linger in the hospices, and we'd have to suit up with masks and, in some cases, entire body suits to visit them. All of these things happened at the beginning of the epidemic so stigma was the least of our issues …

Will we rid ourselves of the HIV/AIDS stigma because it's a disease that is associated with sex? Americans don't do well discussing sex openly, especially African Americans, because we're relatively conservative around sexuality. But we have to move past all of that. For Christmas, I will be giving my single daughter one of our OraQuick AIDS tests, wrapped with a bow and a note that says, "I love you this much and I want you to love yourself." When we all get to that point, we'll be OK.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. 

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