by Stuart Bell
I am currently in Washington DC staffing a booth for the American Fertility Association’s new HIV Outreach program, designed to educate men with HIV about their biological family building options through assisted reproduction. This conference is the largest of its kind and draws over 20,000 people from around the world. To say the least, the scale of this conference is overwhelming. But, before I tell you about that, let’s start with Day 1, Sunday.
I met two of my colleagues who are here to help staff the booth and did a wonderful job of setting everything up with the AFA staff. They are both in their mid-twenties, one gay man and one married straight woman. We met for breakfast before we needed to go staff the booth for the afternoon exhibit hall opening.
During breakfast, one of them asked me what I thought the significance was of this conference and especially what we were there to present—the fact that men with HIV can father their own children safely. The fact that they can actually be biological fathers.
For whatever reason, I became very emotional as I told them how in 1990, at the age of 25 years old, I had taken a staff position with the AIDS organization in Nashville, TN. I told them how a tiny group of 5 staff and many more volunteers served the needs of hundreds of people with HIV, the majority of them already sick with no medications available to even help, and often with no family that even cared.
I told them what it was like to go to at least one funeral every week. I told them that these men and women were actually younger than I am today. Most were in their twenties and thirties—so very young to me now, at the age of 46.
I told them what it was like when a favorite client, Charlie, asked me if I could help him blow dry his hair for a big night out on the town with some of us. He was already in a wheelchair and in his final days, but still wanted to look his very best, yet couldn’t lift his arms to hold the blow dryer. That simple act of blowing Charlie’s hair dry was and remains the most intimate moment I have ever had with another human being. Our eyes locked in the mirror right before I finished and we both knew that this was what being human and humane was all about.
We buried Charlie a few weeks later.
So, it is hard for me to even tell you the significance that this conference and our participation in it has on me, and on so many others who were there in the early days. If you had told anyone in 1990 that people with HIV would live full, long, healthy lives we would have thought you were dreaming. And, if you had told us that people with HIV would someday have their own biological children we would have thought you were crazy!
Well, here we are in 2012 and nothing is crazy about it. Our dreams have come true.
As I said, the conference is a bit overwhelming. The exhibit hall is huge, with every type of vendor imaginable. Many countries have booths and obviously all the pharmaceuticals are here. Many of the booths are flashy, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars I’m sure. And, so many leaders of the country and the world are here including Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates and even Elton John!!!
So many people have stopped by our booth to thank us, really genuinely thank us for being here. Women and men from Africa who are working so hard to educate their communities and who told us that no one talks about the desire to still have children. Social workers from NY and Florida who are working with HIV-positive teens who still want to be parents but don’t know if there is hope or not.
The AFA has put together some wonderful materials including a top-notch video featuring 3 of our amazing physicians. All together, these offer hope and more to so many.
We just finished the day and I’m exhausted but I wanted to write and tell you what an amazing experience this has been. I’ve never been more proud of the work that The AFA does. This organization takes on issues that are so important and often overlooked.
Stuart Bell is a board member of the AFA and is the CEO/Co-owner of Growing Generations.