- Associated Press - Monday, February 19, 2018

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - A common misconception about HIV and AIDS in Memphis is that it primarily affects gay men, men sleeping with men, or people who use drugs.

But, there’s at least one person in the city working to change the conversation with a firsthand view of the situation.

Born in South Memphis and a 1998 graduate of Whitehaven High School, LaDeia McNeal grew up in a family of four.

“Everything wasn’t roses and sunshine,” she said of growing up. “But between my parents and God, they made things happen.”

After corporate layoffs affected the household income, things began to shift.

“We were on public assistance. I remember going down to the commodity line, I remember going around the corner where Vance is to get free dental service,” said the 38 year old. “I didn’t realize we were poor until I got to my first year at The University of Memphis. They called me in and asked how could a family of four survive off of $15,000 a year.”

Despite the odds, McNeal overcame circumstances she never really saw as obstacles. Over the years, she became an ally of people living with HIV.

“In undergrad I started doing work with Hope House, which is like a daycare for children who are either infected or affected by HIV or AIDS,” she said. “I was always an ally when it came to HIV and AIDS. I was not one of those people who thought that it could never happen to me, or that it was beneath me.”

But a phone call nearly 18 months ago shifted her life yet again.

“Sept. 29, 2016. It was a Thursday, 5 p.m. traffic. I was driving down (East) Parkway going toward Poplar,” said McNeal. “They called me and told me over the phone that I was HIV positive.”

The call - which came a week after she was re-tested for the virus following an inconclusive result - violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, more commonly known as HIPPA.

“This is a privacy issue because there isn’t a way to verify the identity of the individual on the other end of the line. Plus, that type of diagnoses is usually given in person, especially if positive, followed by counseling,” said Elizabeth Hart, associate director of Communications at the Tennessee Department of Health.

Alone with no resources, McNeal says only one thought initially came to mind.

“When I hung up the phone, I couldn’t do anything because my mom was sitting in the car with me,” McNeal said, later adding: “I got home around 8 o’clock, and when I pulled up at my apartment the first thing I said was: ‘Who marries someone that is HIV positive?’

“That was the only question I had. It sounds dumb, but I wasn’t concerned about anything at that point.”

McNeal realized she had two choices: Be silent or speak out. With the creation of her platform positivelyDeia, she chose the latter.

“I hate to say shaking tables, but I’m ringing alarms and making (people) aware that as small or big, major or un-major as some people may see it, I’m bringing attention to it,” she said of HIV. “I’m using my diagnosis first as a platform to educate. Before we get into stigma, stereotypes, I need you to understand what the disease, what the chronic illness is.”

On Feb. 7, National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the advocate hosted “Status 101: Know It, Speak It, Protect It” at The Haven Memphis. There, women from various backgrounds listened and engaged with area experts on the basics of HIV and took advantage of free HIV testing.

It was also a night of sharing. An attendee named Sienna revealed that after her diagnosis in 2011, she was OK with remaining silent. But several years later, a light bulb moment following an out-of-town conference led her to be a voice for the cause.

“I got tired of the stigma. I got tired of HIV (being stigmatized as) only being a white man’s disease. I decided I didn’t want to live that life anymore,” Robinson said.

That stigma, according to McNeal, is largely based on marketing.

“The messaging, programming, even the organizations that work in the HIV/AIDS community, they’re very white, very male, and very gay; and I say that very unapologetically,” she said. “In Memphis, the stigma is that HIV is a white person’s disease, or a white gay male disease, or you have to have had some intravenous drug use to get HIV. And that’s so far from the truth.”

McNeal is using that 2016 phone call from her doctor’s office to propel herself as a change agent.

“There has not been a call in Memphis - not one that I’ve seen or noticed - that’s from a black, heterosexual woman,” said McNeal. “If there has been one, maybe it died out or faded away…but we can’t afford to let it be a dying call. It has to be a continual conversation.”

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com


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