Rescued from a closet in Orlando, an educational HIV/AIDS exhibit has new life in Wilton Manors.
On Thursday evening, “Unmasked: Real Faces of HIV” was unveiled at the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center. Around 30 people attended the opening reception, including three of the actual “faces” of the exhibit.
A social worker from Orlando, Joee Pineda said he has no shame about his HIV positive status. When speaking to students at the University of Central Florida, Pineda said he often hears remarks about his appearance.
“They say ‘you don’t look sick’,” he said. “And I say, ‘what am I supposed to look like?”
Originally produced by the Florida Department of Health, the exhibit toured the state to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one out of 54 Floridians will receive an HIV positive diagnosis in their lifetime.
Anthony Johnson was first diagnosed HIV positive 23 years ago. Johnson, a gay man, said the diagnosis pushed him back into the closet.
“I’ve wanted to die many, many times because of this,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he decided to participate in the “Real Faces of HIV” exhibit to reduce stigma and shame, correct false information related to HIV, help others infected and/or affected and encourage all to know their status. His video has more than 89,500 views on YouTube.
“For me it was part of my awakening and catalyst for my advocacy,” said Johnson, a Wilton Manors resident.
Tracey Dannemiller joined Johnson and Pineda at Thursday night’s reception. A straight woman, Dannemiller lives in Lakeland. She is a married mother of six children and has been HIV positive for 32 years.
“I want to make a difference,” she said when asked why lent her likeness to the exhibit. “There’s still so much stigma and misinformation out there.”
Dannemiller described Polk County as “backwards.” Dannemiller’s daughter Leslie also attended Thursday night’s reception. Leslie, 27, was born HIV positive.
“We’re very public about our status,” Tracey Dannemiller said. “And we’ve been fired from jobs and kicked out of churches because of it.”
World AIDS Museum Chief Executive Officer Hugh Beswick welcomed attendees and gave an update on the progress of educating Broward County high school students about safe sex practices. Beswick admitted talking graphically to teenagers about HIV and STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is “not easy” work, but the mission has been well received and WAM has been invited back this year to continue the discussion.
“We teach a stigma conversation with students,” Beswick said. “The elimination of stigma is really what we’re all about.”
Beswick said when he thinks of stigma Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter comes to mind. In the book, a woman is forced to wear a scarlet A on all of her clothing as punishment for adultery.
“That’s a pretty good definition of stigma,” Beswick said.
The ultimate antidote to stigma, Beswick said, is compassion.
“Compassion is really mercy and a step beyond awareness,” Beswick said. “Compassion requires putting ourselves in another person’s shoes and walking around in those shoes until we can wear them comfortably. We at the museum believe the more we can humanize HIV/AIDS the more comfortable we’ll all be with HIV/AIDS.”
WAM operations manager Ed Sparan retrieved the “Real Faces of HIV” exhibit from storage in Orlando earlier this summer and is planning to take it to Miami next month to continue its educational tour.
World AIDS Museum and Educational Center
1201 N.E. 26th Street, Wilton Manors