April 23, 2008
by Laura Whitehorn
While Christine Harris’s AIDS diagnosis in 2002 changed many things in her life, one thing hasn’t changed at all: She’s still a “small-town girl,” she says. Indeed, she still lives outside a small town, Buda, Texas (population 5,100). Having altered so much else in her life since becoming HIV positive—such as acquiring a wide range of medical knowledge—Harris is now committed to changing something else: the isolation experienced by small-town women like her. She works with Women Rising in nearby Austin to help other positive women advocate for their needs as well.
Why were you not diagnosed until you’d already developed AIDS?
Because I’d been in a relationship with an IV-drug user in the past, in 1998 or early ’99 I got tested a few times, and the tests came back negative. So I think I contracted HIV in 1999. And until I got HIV I was never sick.
Then in about 2000 or ’01, I had thrush; I was losing weight; I was suffering from terrible fatigue. I said, “Test me for everything,” but “everything” didn’t include HIV—no one thought of testing me, because I’m a woman. Finally, they tested me at the health department and set me up with the HIV clinic in Austin. My T cells were at 53, my viral load was above 750,000.
Did this make you angry at the medical staff?
Well, I would say I want the doctors to be more vigilant with women. But once I was diagnosed, the HIV clinic sent me to a doctor I loved. She is a woman, and she held my hand and walked me through everything. [Eventually], someone at the HIV clinic suggested that I get connected with Women Rising Project, but there was no flyer about the project. Now we advocate for more exposure of the project at clinics. If I had seen the flyer I would have called sooner.
What do you do with Women Rising now?
I help women advocate for what they need. We all have different needs. If we need child care, we need to let someone know that’s what’s preventing us from getting education or whatever [we need]. So many women don’t use the voice they’re born with. Then with HIV or another hard event we don’t know how to speak up, and we get set in patterns [of not finding help]. I teach an advocacy class—how to register to vote, how to talk to your doctor, how to advocate for whatever you need.
Give me an example of something you’ve advocated for.
I live nine miles east of Buda—about 28 miles away from Austin. I have a vehicle, and I can get to Austin [where HIV services are available]. But I know I’m not the only positive person [around here], and it’s stressful driving to Austin to go to a doctor. I advocated for medical services in San Marcos, our county seat, and now—it took about three years—we have a clinic contracted to operate there. It is open one afternoon a week, with a doctor, a nurse and now two counselors.
Is it rough for people with HIV out there, far from a big city?
My town—and the area around it—isn’t really accepting. They look at HIV as a city problem. One [positive] lady [who lives in a nearby town] has young kids, and she’s isolated. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to, can’t afford to get to meetings. It’s a lot harder than walking a few blocks for a bus, or calling a car. And now that gas is over $3 a gallon—if I drive to Austin, it’s an [expensive] day trip going and coming back.
Have you tried group phone calls as a way to hold support groups?
For women the phone doesn’t work as well. We’re touchers. We touch everything. We gather, get a cup of coffee and a hug. We need that.
My idea is to create a front—it wouldn’t be openly related to HIV. In a rural area, it’s taboo to talk about HIV. Even domestic violence and mental illness and abuse aren’t openly talked about. So I’d have a bookstore with a back room on women and many issues—HIV isn’t the only one for us. It would be a safe place where the men wouldn’t feel threatened. It would look like a thrift store or a bookstore, so the women could come in by themselves [because the men wouldn’t be interested.] I’d have brochures. A woman is more likely to walk up to a display and pick up a brochure than to call someone. She’d worry about caller ID—“what if they know who I am?”—so a brochure would be easier.
What keeps you centered, and what are some other challenges you’re facing?
To deal with stress, I grab my garden tools and a bottle of water and head outside to my garden. Getting my hands in the soil is the most calming thing. I have three banana trees, and things are staring to pup up.
But I’m not doing as well on kicking cigarettes—not so good on the “no smoking.” I’m down to one, two or three a day, but living with a heavy smoker makes it hard. When he’s around, he’s my trigger. If he were here now I’d probably be smoking!
I think you’ll succeed, and you’ll get that storefront, too. After all, creating that clinic was a pretty significant victory!
My great granddad raised his kids to say “You’re big enough to do anything you’re big enough to do.” I think I’m big, even though physically I’m small. I use what I have—connection, a voice—for my body and home and for someone else’s.
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