On a sunny Friday afternoon, I quietly walked into a suite on the third floor of the Marriot Marquis in Washington, D.C. Directly in from the door, three people sat cozily on a couch in front of a large, flat-screen television. Their conversation took precedence over the TV, but the Law & Order rerun provided a nice background buzz. To my right sat two women at a table, tracing cardboard letters on what looked like parchment paper. A few others milled about the room, sipping coffee or soda, munching on pretzels, kettle chips, and M&Ms, making friendly conversation. One of the women at the table turned towards me with an enormous, beaming grin. “Welcome!” she proclaimed. “Go get yourself something to drink and have a seat!”
After grabbing a cup of coffee, I sat down at the table with the tracers, next to the woman who greeted me. “How are you doing today, baby?” she asked, with that glorious smile. My heart beamed. I felt incredibly comfortable.
After introductions and some pleasant banter about the conference, I inquired about the tracing of the cardboard letters. “We’re working on some panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. If you know anyone who’s passed, you can put their name on the list.” She reached across the table and showed me the names others had already written down; at least 20 names stared back at me. “Right now we’re working on Clifford. Do you know how to do a running stitch?”
Chuckling, I coyly shook my head: “No.”
“That’s okay, baby,” she responded. “You can just help me with the letters.”
She handed a stack of the cardboard cut-outs to me. As I reached for them, she touched my arm. “That is a fascinating tattoo,” she said, running her bejeweled fingernails over the stamp tattooed on my forearm. “What does that mean?”
“This was the date I found out I was positive,” I told her. “I was in New York City on a trip when I was diagnosed. After I found out, I camped out at a Starbucks just a few blocks from the pharmacy I had been tested in and wrote postcards to my friends and family back in Nebraska. This was the stamp the post office put over the postage stamp. About a year after I found out, I saw the postcard I had sent my sister. As soon as I saw the stamp at the top of the postcard, I knew I needed to turn it into a tattoo. Then, within 45 minutes it was inked on my arm.”
“Let me see that,” the lady sitting across the table beckoned.
I held up my arm, displaying my badge.
“I love that!” she squealed. “I’ve always wanted to get a barcode with my anniversary tattooed on the back of my neck.”
“You should!” I encouraged.
This sparked a conversation that attracted the attention of the other individuals in the room. We all sat around and shared our own personal stories of when we were diagnosed with HIV: the heartbreak, the struggle, and the stigma that followed. Each person told their unique story that, nevertheless, shared the same common denominator: HIV. In this little hotel room, we created a community. There wasn’t anything shameful or embarrassing about our dialogue. We were just people, sharing our truth.
This was my first time attending the United States Conference on AIDS, and, frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. My hopes were to meet inspiring individuals, uncover new ways to engage our community in this fight, and soak up as much knowledge as I possibly could. What I got out of this conference was more than anything I could have dreamt of. I met heroes, survivors, and fighters, invigorating me to hit the ground running as soon as I got back to Nebraska.
I found that this was an incredibly emotional experience. The work that we do is so important. It hit me on such a personal level that I wasn’t anticipating. My ties to this cause run deep, and it’s something I get to experience every day, but it struck me in a way I didn’t foresee. There was something remarkable about seeing over 3,000 individuals together to make a universal impact.
Andy Dillehay is the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Lincoln NAP office, where he oversees the testing program, is responsible for community presentations, fosters relationships with other agencies, and strives to increase NAP’s visibility. In addition to his work at NAP, Andy is an actor/writer/director/Golden Girls enthusiast.