Friday, December 11, 2015

Building a Cape: Reflections on the Whitman-Walker Walk to End HIV

By Sara Doverspike

Superman was one of my favorite superheroes while I was growing up. The guy had it all; the traditional charm of a small town boy, the strength of whatever the storyline requires of him, and a humanitarian heart as big as his abdominal muscles. But what I admired most about Superman was how he utilized his super-human powers, especially the ability to fly. Flight in Superman’s context is associated with courage—to do what is right, to actively fight for social justice. To put on a cape and fly makes one visible as a hero, it takes away the comfortability of the status quo, and encourages one to act in a way that makes them great. That makes them super.

I made a cape for this year’s annual Whitman-Walker sponsored Heroes Walk to End HIV in DC. It was a child-sized, Amazon-purchased piece of synthetic material that had a WordArt designed “superhero” logo package-taped to the back. It wasn’t particularly comfortable to wear, or something that Marvel would invest in to be sported by the next big hero. I was afraid that it wouldn’t be significant.

The Whitman-Walker Health clinic has a rich history serving the greater Washington, DC area since 1973, and has been committed to the “highest quality, culturally competent” healthcare for all individuals in the community, with their particular expertise in LGBT and HIV care. This year marked the 29th annual Walk to End HIV, featuring a superhero themed fundraising walk and 5K to benefit Whitman-Walker and their commitment to comprehensive and accessible healthcare to those affected by HIV/AIDS. According to the CDC , more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and about 1 in 8 people are unaware of their status. The lack of knowledge and testing can largely be attributed to the stigma and discrimination attached to individuals living with HIV, from how it is transmitted to the presumptions of the lives of the people that HIV effects.

When I arrived at the walk, I was overwhelmed by all of the capes being flown. They were all different kinds of fabric and sizes, some were plain or multicolored, some had original logos, and some came with a full super suit complete with pleather boots. And then some came in the form of words of encouragement and personal stories about HIV has affected their lives. Some capes were the dance moves of a group of strangers with the help of the pre-walk warm up DJ. Some people put on their capes when they asked someone for help, or advice about their status, or for a picture with some of their HIV positive role models. And some capes were silently present in solidarity, immersed in the atmosphere of a community dedicated to proving that no cape had to fly alone. Every person had put on a cape; every person had become significantly super.

When the walk began, hundreds of people consumed the streets of downtown DC and all the capes weaved themselves together to create a colorful and beautiful display of support for their friends, family, people they haven’t met or would never meet, the people standing next to them, and themselves. Together we flew through the streets, past the iconic Washington monument and stopped all the cars and passerby in their tracks (who I would presume were asking themselves the classic question of whether we were birds or planes). The Superman I had loved long ago seemed less tangible and more fictional than ever before, as I knew I was among the heroes who have fought their battles without super strength or the ability to flee to the sky when problems on the ground are tough. These are the people that walk among us and achieved greatness through their courage in the everyday. They’ve had capes on all along, even when I hadn’t noticed.

After the walk, I tucked my synthetic cape neatly away in the closet. I haven’t taken it out since; but every now and again, when I’m reminded, I feel its presence.

To learn more about Whitman-Walker and the Walk to End HIV:
To find the closest testing center:
To find a testing center and knowledge about testing/your status:
Know you are not alone! There are plenty of resources available to connect friends living with HIV, such as this encouragement wall:

You are strong. You are loved. You are super!

Sara Doverspike is a Stigma, Discrimination, and Gender Intern at the International Center for Research on Women, and proud to be a stigma warrior.


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