Seaside Community Hears From Dionne Warwick, Cheryl Wills, Roxanne Shante, On Epidemic
By Nathan James
This past Thursday, in the seaside hamlet of Far Rockaway in extreme southeastern Queens, the first annual Turning The Tide On AIDS forum was held at the Public Library on Central Avenue. The talk, moderated by City Council candidate Ernest Flowers of District 31, included iconic vocalist Dionne Warwick, NY1 TV news anchor Cheryl Wills, hip-hop trailblazer Roxanne Shante, AIDS advocate Shacazia Brown, and Rev. Carl Washington.
Presented by Camille Evans of CME Group, each panelist spoke candidly about the issue of HIV/AIDS, and how the epidemic, which has persisted around the globe for over three decades, can be addressed in towns like Far Rockaway. Ms, Warwick noted how her involvement in public advocacy on AIDS began when “my valet died of this disease. I researched it to find out what this illness was that took him.”
Long a supporter of HIV/AIDS prevention and education, Warwick told GBM News that her commitment was unchanged over the years, “I’ve always been on this train. I support the [LGBT] community, I work outside that community too, because it’s about all of us.”
Moderator Flowers noted that the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS include access to healthcare. “Right here in Far Rockaway, we’ve lost a hospital,” referring to the recent closure of Peninsula Hospital, one of only two hospitals serving the Rockaways, “and now one overwhelmed hospital has to serve everybody.” St. John’s Episcopal Hospital is the last operating hospital on the Rockaway Peninsula, which has a population of about 150,000.
Roxanne Shaunte discussed her own experiences as a breast-cancer survivor, and noted that people living with HIV are faced with much the same challenge. ”I will always speak up,” she told the riveted audience, “because it’s the right thing to do.” Survivors Of Mothers With AIDS (SOMWA) founder Shacazia Brown related her story of her mother’s battle with AIDS.
After her mother died when Brown was 23, the activist looked at her younger siblings, whom she now had to raise, and was inspired to organize to help other women facing the same plight. A benediction was offered by Rev. Washington, and TV anchor Cheryl Wills reminded the audience of the lack of mainstream-media coverage on HIV/AIDS stories. ”I’m gonna be real about this,” said Wills, “The media showed us Magic Johnson taking a pill [for AIDS], and gave us the impression that it’s going to be all right now.” Wills called on the American media to pay closer attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and vowed to do so on her own news broadcasts.
The overall focus of the panel discussion was on the mainstream black community. There was little mention of LGBT issues of higher HIV infection rates, poorer access to healthcare, and religious homophobia which, according to a Black AIDS Institute study released last summer, all contribute to a 1 in 4 chance of a black gay man or teen becoming infected by age 24. But panelists all agreed that greater efforts at prevention, education, and frank discussion of the issues were sorely needed in every minority community.
The Rockaways have a HIV infection rate “significantly above” the national average, according to the city’s Health department.