Upcoming conference for HIV-positive men promotes confidence, strength
Several years ago, Auntjuan Wiley had a vision. The president and chief executive officer of AIDS Walk South Dallas, Inc. noticed the lack of resources and conferences addressing the needs of HIV-positive men.
“But I had to wait for the universe to say yes,” he said.
His organization, which focuses on African America men living with HIV and AIDS, already has a group specifically for HIV-positive men. Called The Group, it meets the second and fourth Thursdays of every month.
But a small and intimate meeting is different from a conference.
“There is already a women’s conference,” he said. “But none addressing the needs of all HIV-positive men. I already had The Group. But we needed more [opportunities for HIV-positive men].”
This year, the universe spoke. After six months of organizing, Wiley and other HIV-positive men from across the country will gather for the first annual Strength Conference for Men Living with HIV.
It’s not a typical suit and tie conference. Despite the name, he doesn’t even like to call it a conference.
“It’s more like a retreat,” he said. “We’ll discuss in a safe space what it means to be a man living with HIV.”
Its goal is to provide support, education and empowerment for all HIV-positive men, including straight, gay, and bisexual men.
There’s no other event like it in the country according to his research.
“[My colleagues and I] did some research and found there are events only for men living with HIV and AIDS. But they segment men by identity or orientation.
We’re bringing all men together,” he said.
Corporate and group sponsors include AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Avita Pharmacy, Merck, Viiv Healthcare, Janssen and the Regional Resource Network Program, a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. J. Anderson Lester is individual sponsor and an AIDS Walk South Dallas board member.
Wiley isn’t only the conference’s organizer. He will be one of the men attending too.
As a man living with AIDS, he will be part of the conversation and story.
“I’ve lived with AIDS for nearly 20 years,” he said, noting the 21st anniversary of his diagnosis falls on Wednesday, Nov. 4. “I never lived with HIV. But I have AIDS.”
He has also been involved as a HIV and AIDS work social worker for 26 years.
Working with the disenfranchised also inspired the conference.
“I look for a need. There is another AIDS walk, but we’re in a disenfranchised community already,” he said. “We’re not Oak Lawn. We have different needs.”
Many of the attendees, who are coming from as far away as Kansas City, may not have access to or know about services available to them. Other men may not be the type you see every day either. After all, many straight men aren’t necessarily embedded in the gay scene. Being gay or bisexual is not a requisite for having HIV or AIDS after all.
Bringing together HIV-positive men from around the country is an opportunity to conduct research and analyze trends as well.
“We can what’s going on elsewhere and [find patterns],” he said.
Men are not different from other demographics living with HIV and AIDS. But men do have different needs. Men, for instance, have traditionally been head of the household. But with the stigma of HIV, they may feel their role is diminished.
“We’re teaching men to accept their identity as a man then accept their identity as gay, bisexual or straight,” he said. “Then we will promote accepting that they live with HIV.”
He will lead a rap session combating the stigma around HIV. Attendees will also learn about building healthy relationships. Another session will promote six ways HIV-positive men may live happier and healthier lives.
One thing Wiley wants to avoid?
“We won’t get too political. If issues come up we’ll address them. But the retreat is about too many other overarching and real issues,” he said.
Wiley is proud of the men who registered for the retreat.
If men are unable to attend this year, they will have plenty of opportunities in the future. The Strength Conference is now an official program of AIDS Walk South Dallas, joining its other programs include the prison outreach group Helping Other People Equally group and the Wellness Roundtable, which every Thursday of the month at the Center for Community Cooperation.
But he is not looking to the future just yet. He is focused on the men who have signed up for the conference’s inaugural year.
“We’ve already advanced when it comes to HIV/AIDS awareness in society,” he said. “To have 50 guys come to the hotel in a public place shows we’ve done a lot to combat the stigma.”
The Strength Conference for Men Living with HIV takes place Friday, Nov. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 8 at Embassy Suites, 3880 W. Northwest Highway. For more information call 469-410-3755 or e-mail StrengthConference@AIDSWalkSouthDallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 30, 2015.