Compass, the LGBT center of the Palm Beaches, was full last week of many eager to separate historical fact from fiction during a talk given by special guest Dr. Requel Lopez.
The discussion, “Hidden Truths of HIV/AIDS History,” centered on providing factual context for the true origins of the HIV virus while also dispelling some of the rumors that still surround the often-misunderstood disease. The presentation was free to the community in commemoration of World AIDS Day, which takes place every year on Dec. 1.
Lopez, who serves as executive director of the World AIDS Museum in Wilton Manors, said it is critical for those who are educated on topics like HIV/AIDS to continue to spread awareness and “start the conversation” with those who were affected by the disease.
Specific topics of the talk included the “Myth of Patient Zero,” a now-disproven theory from the early days of HIV research that suggested there was a single human source for the virus. According to Lopez, current research indicates that the two known strains of HIV were transmitted to humans from chimpanzees in the forests of Africa.
Famous athletes who have contracted HIV were also mentioned, like 3-time Grand Slam tennis champion Arthur Ashe and 5-time NBA champion Earvin “Magic” Johnson, as further proof that no one is immune to the disease or its stigmas.
Lopez said Johnson, who has lived with the virus for nearly three decades follows a strict medical protocol and in turn is able to mitigate the harmful effects.
“Examples like his are so important,” Lopez said. “We need to see role models out there.”
Lopez explained that the stigmas surrounding HIV have even led to its criminalization in the form of state laws that prohibit sexual intercourse between an HIV positive person and someone without the virus, if both parties are not made aware of the presence of the disease.
These laws, she said, have done great harm to the LGBT community and have sometimes produced convictions of attempted murder.
The discussion was part of a continuing monthly series of free talks put on by Compass that highlight LGBT awareness, according to Health Services Director Lysette Pérez.
“These are always open to anyone in the community who wishes to learn about the topic we’re discussing,” she said. “We also ask if there are any topics [people] would like to see in the future. We really aim to provide for the community and their needs.”
A full dinner was also provided for all attendees, many of whom wore a red ribbon in support of the center’s current campaign promoting HIV testing for all.
“The best way to get people tested is to talk about getting tested,” Perez said. “The only way you remove the stigma of something is talking about it.”
Lopez closed the night by saying that the World AIDS Museum is always looking for volunteers and welcomes all those in the community who come to give their time and to share their experiences.
“I’ve been to the museum three times, it’s a great place.” said Cecil Smith, 61. “I came out tonight to learn more of the history and to celebrate World AIDS Day.”
For Lopez, the work she does at the museum is both professional and personal.
“These stories need to be told because they represent each and every one of us,” she said.
The World AIDS Museum is located at 1201 NE 26th St. in Wilton Manors and more information can be found on its website at WorldAIDSmuseum.org.