Andrea Williams, also known around Brooklyn, New York, as the “condom lady,” became an AIDS advocate after her own diagnosis in 1993. Whether talking to people on the street about HIV testing and risks, hosting a support group at her Crown Heights home, or teaching positive friends about treatment side effects, she has been involved in HIV education ever since. For the past six years, she has been an outreach worker for Life Force, an organization working to “reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS and to address the broad range of other health care issues of women of color,” especially in Brooklyn. In March, her life and work were the focus of the HBO film Life Support.
Kellee Terrell: Why do they call you the “condom lady?”
Andrea Williams: Because it’s part of what I do—pass out condoms on the streets. A lot of our work involves walking the streets. We ask people, “Do you use condoms? Have you thought about using condoms?” We also use our own life stories to get them to listen.
Now they are even looking for us! The other day, some people came up to me and were like, “Where have you all been?”
Terrell:What else do you do for Life Force?
Williams: I’ve gone to women’s houses, sort of like a Tupperware party, to educate them about safer sex practices and how to enhance their sex lives with toys.
We also do testing and needle exchange in Brownsville. When [women] come back for their results, we use that as an opportunity to educate and counsel them. “OK, you’re negative. Now what are you going to do? Will you share needles?” They say, “No! I’ll never share a needle.” So that conversation about staying negative is very important.
What is interesting about the Brownsville program is that they are not coming up positive. They’re getting their clean needles and they are not sharing.
Terrell: Do you feel that injection-drug users are left out of the conversation about HIV?
Williams: Yes, it’s like they’re forgotten. There is the perception that you only contract HIV through unprotected sex. When we first found out about HIV, people claimed that the disease affected just IV-drug users and homosexuals. So why now do people ask me, “Oh, do people still shoot drugs? I don’t see them.” There are still plenty of people shooting drugs—I am out with them twice a week.
Terrell: What are some of the barriers that affect the African American community when dealing with HIV?
Williams: We hold a lot in because of the stigma behind HIV. Nobody wants to talk about it—it’s a depressing issue. I was worried that when the film came out, my children were going to get harassed. People in the area knew what work I did, but they did not all know that I was positive [before the film].
But parents kept coming up to me and sharing their stories. “My husband died this year," "my sister died five years ago," or "I work on Rikers Island and we need more education.” I think that because these people didn’t have anyone to relate to, they kept it in.
Terrell: How about women?
Williams: There are so many women who don’t even want to talk about it. How can you have sex with somebody and not talk about condoms or getting tested? Some women are scared to talk about it with a new partner. “Oh, he might get mad," they say.
My thing is this: If you’re going to open your legs for somebody, that’s the most intimate thing you can do. That’s your body. You need to talk about it. And if you don’t want to use condoms, you don’t want to have sex. It’s real simple.
Terrell: What’s next for you?
Williams: I will keep doing this work, but I am thinking about moving down South to a smaller city. They need some education badly. My cousin is a nurse in Virginia and she told me that she is working with AIDS patients who have MAC [mycobacterium avium complex]. And I’m like, what? Why do they have MAC? This is 2007 and they are sick like that?
Terrell: When people look at you, what do you want them to see?
Williams: I’m HIV positive, and let’s move on.
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