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Red Pump Project talks HIV/AIDS awareness
by Matt Simonette

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Health advocates and community members gathered Aug. 13, at Little Black Pearl Workshop, 1060 E. 47th St., for Red Pump Project's annual "Condoms and Cupcakes" discussion and party.

The gathering aimed for a frank discussion about HIV awareness and prevention among women of color. Red Pump Project is a national organization, based in Chicago, dedicated to educating women and girls on the impact of HIV/AIDS as well as matters of sexual and reproductive health. Their name is derived from their signature event, which occurs each year on March 10, which is National Women and Girls' HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: The organization asks all women to "rock" red shoes that day, since "We use the Red Pump as a symbol of empowerment to represent the strength and courage of women affected by HIV/AIDS," according to the group's website.

After a discussion of female condoms by Sara Semelka of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, as well as a talk by Alaina Robertson of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three local activists—two of them HIV-positive—discussed both the importance of frank conversation about the HIV as well the need to reduce stigmatization against HIV-positive individuals.

Author Rae Lewis-Thornton said that many women live with a false sense of security: "They tell themselves, 'There is something in my life that does not put me at risk for HIV.'"

She added that communication with one's partner is of paramount importance: "That's not to say your man is untrustworthy—but 38 percent of people are infected by people who are unaware that they have HIV.

"The only way to know your HIV status is to get tested, and the only way to stay safe is to use a condom," Lewis-Thornton added.

Activist Evany Turk concurred. Like Lewis-Thonton, she has HIV and said she's committed to spreading the word about condoms to friends, family and the public at large. "I carry condoms everywhere with me. We have to make it normal and not taboo to have these conversations."

Both women said that they are forward and direct with sexual partners about their status, and break off encounters when partners have still been ambivalent about using protection.

Sandria Washington, executive editor of, said much of the anxiety around discussing HIV stems from the economic implications of having the infection: "Even if the testing is free, what about beyond that?" she asked, noting that many Americans are still uninsured or underinsured.

Washington also considered that some partners, when confronted with the possibility of testing, might respond with emotional manipulation: "They might ask, 'Why are you asking me about this?'"

"If you cannot have a healthy conversation about your health, that's not a healthy relationship," added Turk.

"We all have HIV," noted Lewis-Thornton. "We're either infected, or affected, by it."

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