Tracey Dannemiller, 49 • AIDS educator • Lakeland, FL • HIV diagnosis: 1985
When I tested positive I went into denial. I thought, “If I get sick, I’ll know why. But if not, they must have made a mistake.” I didn’t want to believe it. I thought my life was over. I knew my husband had been diagnosed, but I was shocked and surprised, thinking, “Why me?”
Before I tested positive, I thought the stats were that one in a million people test positive. I envisioned a room to put 1 million people in, and I thought, “I’m going to be this person?” I stayed in denial for about eight years, until I finally came to grips with the fact that the children had to be tested. I had a second test performed in 1993 when my fourth child was born, and he is negative. But while I was pregnant with him, a doctor told me I needed to have an abortion because I was HIV positive. I have six children, and only one—she was born in 1989—has HIV.
Women are more vulnerable to HIV because we give our partners a chance to woo us, saying, “Oh, it’s going to be OK, and I’m faithful.” And women sometimes put ourselves at risk because we tend to be caretakers. We’re caught up in taking care of children or partners, and we tend to let ourselves go. Honestly, at times that has been true for me. I have put myself on the back burner, even with being such an advocate. There have been times when, for whatever reason—taking care of the family—I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll let myself go and tend to a different need now.” But the truth is that if I’m not around, I’m not going to be able to care for my kids.
One thing that spurred me [from denial to activism] was seeing and feeling death all around us. It seemed like there were people dying, dying, dying. Then in 1999, I first disclosed publicly that I have HIV, at a university here in
Florida. One of my doctors asked me if I’d speak at a World AIDS Day event. At first I was a little hesitant, and then I felt in my heart it was the right thing for me. I am driven by the fact that there is so much animosity out there, so much misinformation, so many myths circulating, so much stigma, fear and ignorance. When my daughter was younger, a soccer team forfeited a game because they didn’t want their kids playing against her. So the voices of those of us who choose to be advocates need to be heard.
Another example of stigma: A family moved into our subdivision, our quote-unquote “typical” neighborhood. Anyone who moves into our neighborhood knows about “the AIDS family,” which is OK with us. But two of our children were playing outside, and this gentleman came out with a gun and shooed them away from his house. So we talked to him. [To educate people,] we meet the people where they are, try to explain so they can understand. Fast forward: Today, we are friends. Another time, in 1996, we were kicked out of our church. They made me resign from teaching Sunday school and working with the children’s choir.
I’m helping people along by speaking out through my nonprofit, Straight From the Heart of Florida. This is my purpose in life, aside from being a mother and wife. Speaking and sharing for me is very therapeutic. I have to do something to try to make a positive difference.