AIDS Walk Atlanta & 5K run
Washington, an openly gay man and longtime activist, is one of five “faces” of this year’s 20th annual AIDS Walk Atlanta, which steps off Oct. 17 from Piedmont Park.
Washington is joined by other faces of the AIDS Walk: Marty Mitchell, the mother of Brett Lykins, who lost his battle with AIDS in 2007; Denise Stokes, who served on President Clinton’s HIV Advisory Panel, is an advocate for empowering and caring for women and has been HIV positive for 28 years; and Robby Astrove, who has been HIV positive since he was 16, and his wife, Danielle Arellano, who remains HIV negative.
Washington says he knew he was HIV positive in 1985 when he began showing symptoms, such as swollen lymph glands, but was too afraid to get tested. He waited almost six years to have his worst fear confirmed at a public health clinic. Speaking out about HIV and being so open about living with the disease is part of a significant journey he is on, he says.
“By the time I started becoming that public about it I had some trepidation, but I wasn’t terrified. I think it would have been an act of courage in ’85, because when I think of courage I think of doing something in the face of abject fear,” he says.
But by the early 1990s when he moved to Atlanta with his partner at the time, when he began doing HIV/AIDS work and speaking out about being HIV positive, he knew he was in a safe space.
“There were certain fears that had minimized by the time I stepped out. I still carried a certain level of stigma — would people just define me by the disease?” he says.
“I didn’t know much about insurance. The fear of not knowing how life would be outside my comfort zone. I had a partner and friends. And I depended on that social network to be treated fairly, decently.”
Part of a lineage
Washington says he has used his status to teach and motivate people to strive for justice, but he’s also learned a great deal from living with the disease.
“I carry with me the spirits of black gay poets who are no longer here, many of whom died of AIDS. Those are the courageous ones,” he says. “They were out speaking publicly, daring to address this issue to unwelcome audiences when I wasn’t. There’s an honor. But it’s a mission, something sacred that is passed on to me,” he says.
“I think I’m here as part of a lineage … and I’m here to ensure that their names [such as Audre Lorde, Donald Woods, Pat Parker] and work are not forgotten but also the things they stood up for don’t fall by the wayside.”
Washington is a youthful, healthy 50-year old and he knows he is fortunate that the medicines he takes every day continue to work. His appearance is not one of a sick man.
He says being HIV positive isn’t something that typically causes him fear or anxiety like he had when he first contracted the virus, except when he goes in to see the doctor for his check ups. On those days, when the doctor leaves the room to go get the test results, he says he does have thoughts of the doctor coming back in saying the tests show his medicines are no longer working.
“And how things could change,” he says.
He knows that his appearance can be deceiving to some people — for example, young people who can look at him and possibly think, well, Craig’s been HIV positive 25 years and he looks fine and is doing fine.
“I was talking to a colleague about the dilemma of the conflict of messaging,” he says. “What do you say, how do you convey on the one hand that being HIV positive is not a death sentence, it’s not terminal and you can live a long, happy life. There’s plenty of evidence that shows I can be happy, in love, even have a partner — except for those who live in small towns.”
HIV is not the “big, bad monster” it once was, so people who have the disease are being taught that they do not have to live in shame, he adds.
“But then you talk to those who are negative and say, ‘You don’t want this.’ It’s not like saying this is ice cream you should get some, but there is a paradox,” he notes.
Washington acknowledges he wishes he wasn’t HIV positive all the time.
“But I don’t dwell on it because it’s futile. I don’t judge myself. If anything I think, what would it be like if it never happened, how it hit us, our world,” he says.
Top photo: Left: Craig Washington is a face for this year’s AIDS Walk Atlanta. Right: Thousands are expected to walk in the 20th annual AIDS Walk Atlanta. Organizers hope to raise $900,000 for several AIDS service organizations. (Washington photo via Facebook, AIDS Walk photo courtesy ProjectQAtlanta.com)