HIV Patients Plan To Lobby Congress
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005; C03
Kendal Richardson, 27, tested positive for the AIDS virus in 1996, not long after graduating from high school in Sterling. He said he continued to have unprotected sex with men for five years before seeking treatment.
Geno Dunnington, 49, tested positive in 1985. "The first thing I did was went out and got married," he said. His wife and two children were not infected, he said, but he continued to have unprotected sex with men for more than a decade.
Ronald Morgan, 43, tested positive in 1984 but continued to have unprotected sex until last winter, when his skin broke out in boils. "My HIV had progressed to full-blown AIDS," he said.
Yesterday, Richardson, Dunnington and Morgan joined nearly 300 other people with HIV from across the country outside Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium to call on the president, Congress and society to make a renewed commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic.
Then the crowd, organized by the Campaign to End AIDS, marched to Anacostia Park to call attention to the virus's growing devastation of the black community, particularly in the nation's capital.
Washington has a far higher incidence of AIDS -- 170.6 cases per 100,000 people, according to federal statistics -- than other major U.S. cities, including New York and San Francisco. An estimated one in 20 District residents is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And that number climbs to an estimated one in seven among black men in the District, said Michael Pickering of RAP Inc., a drug treatment program that works with people who have AIDS.
"That number should petrify us all," Pickering said as marchers chanting to a single snare drum and carrying colorful state flags straggled into Anacostia Park to listen to music and hear speeches from AIDS activists and D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4). "There shouldn't be room to stand in this park," Pickering said.
Richardson, Dunnington and Morgan are among the statistics. All three are African Americans who contracted HIV while living in or around the District. They are also examples of why the virus can spread so rapidly in the city's black community: All said they initially dealt with news of their infection not by seeking treatment, but by withdrawing into a state of denial.
"I wanted to be regular. I wanted to fit in. So I did everything everyone else was doing so they wouldn't know," said Richardson, who lives in Atlanta. That included going to "the sex shops, the O Street Follies, and just doing anything and everything," he said.
Since seeking treatment and finding religion, Richardson said, he has contacted former sex partners and was relieved to find that none had contracted the virus. "But you don't know who else you could have done it to," he said.
Dunnington, who lives near RFK Stadium, and Morgan, who lives at RAP's treatment center in Northeast Washington, said they have no doubt that they passed the AIDS virus on to others before seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addictions -- behavior similar to that of Sundiata Basir, the former D.C. government worker who was sentenced last week to 21 years in prison for exposing at least seven women and girls as young as 15 to the AIDS virus.
Although Basir was unapologetic, Dunnington and Morgan said they are trying to atone for their actions by getting involved in advocacy programs and reaching out to young people who might be making the same mistakes they did.
"We need to stop, take a chill pill and get a new direction," Morgan said. "If you have HIV, you need to learn to disclose."
Although the marchers voiced concern chiefly about changing individual behavior, leaders of the Campaign to End AIDS said little will improve until Congress fully funds education and prevention programs that teach people to do more than practice abstinence. They also decried proposed cuts in the Medicaid budget and the expiration of the Ryan White CARE Act, both of which provide a crucial safety net for hundreds of thousands of people with HIV.
Over the next three days, leaders of the campaign will lobby Congress for more attention and money for research on the disease.
They also will protest outside the White House and the offices of conservative organizations.
But most important, they said, they will urge national leaders to fund research into a cure for the disease that is still killing millions worldwide.
No one "is articulating a vision of a world without AIDS," said Charles King, president of Housing Works, a nonprofit organization that serves the HIV-infected homeless in New York and Mississippi. "We really could end this epidemic if we had the will, the compassion to do that."