Pictured Phill Wilson
Phill and Ina Wilson are about as close as a mother and son can be. That closeness definitely came in handy when Phill came out to her—and again, years later, when he revealed that he was HIV-positive. Now, both family members are activists who are deeply involved in HIV/AIDS awareness and education.
In separate interviews, Phill ( who heads the Black AIDS Institute out in Los Angeles ) and Ina, who lives in Chicago, recently talked with Windy City Times about everything from familial harmony to devastation in Botswana.
Windy City Times: You were in Botswana recently. Was it a business trip?
Phill Wilson: Yes, it was. I was invited by the health ministry of Botswana and the U.S. embassy in that country to train about HIV/AIDS on a community-based level.
WCT: We've read reports about how prevalent HIV and AIDS are in Africa—but what about Botswana in particular?
PW: Botswana is actually one of the worst-hit in the world, but I think it's also one of our best hopes of winning [ the battle against HIV and AIDS ] for a whole host of reasons.
First and foremost is that it has strong presidential leadership. President Festus Mogae is absolutely the strongest leader on the continent when it comes to HIV and AIDS. Botswana is also the oldest democracy in Africa; it was liberated in 1967. It's also the only democracy that [ came about ] without violence. The country has resources, mainly diamonds—and managed to keep its wealth. Also, they are involved in every sector of society—which is a transition to our philosophy regarding Black America. The final thing is that a lot of [ helpful organizations ] are there. In recent years, the AIDS struggle in Black America has starved to death. I was very impressed with what I saw.
There's a very aggressive campaign there; last year they tested over 100,000 people [ out of a population of just under 1.7 million ] . They also have a strong mother-to-child transmission prevention program. Also, unlike South Africa, Botswana has a minister of health who believes in public health.
WCT: You mentioned that you feel that the fight against AIDS in America's Black community has been 'starved.' Why do you feel that way?
PW: For example, take a look at the President's budget for the 2006 fiscal year. He cut prevention dollars, he flat-funded treatment dollars when we have more people living with HIV and AIDS than ever before ( and a vast number of them are Black ) , and our prevention efforts have moved from comprehensive [ approaches ] to something more restricted ( namely, abstinence-based programs ) . It's pretty clear the media is not as interested in AIDS as it once was. It's not as sexy as it was when the people being infected were not overwhelmingly Black.
WCT: What would you say is the biggest problem within the Black community itself?
PW: I think that there are multiple reasons, but the biggest is that the Black community has not taken ownership of this disease. There is this complacency. The truth is that no matter what George Bush or anyone else does, this epidemic won't end in our community until Black people take ownership of the disease and decide to end it.
The reasons for the lack of ownership are varied. One of them is stigma. There's still a connection between HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. While I don't believe that homophobia is any greater among Blacks than anywhere else, it does continues to exist—and it is a barrier.
I think that some people choose to think of AIDS as a white gay disease because they don't want to acknowledge the reality that Black men, women, and adolescents are dying from it at alarming rates. So people aggressively pretend that it's not our problem.
The third thing is the lack of infrastructure and capacity. In some ways, that's connected to resources. There aren't enough Black institutions that have the infrastructure, resources, capacity, and commitment to fight the epidemic.
WCT: What kind of feedback have you gotten about National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day [ Feb. 7 ] ?
PW: I think that, all things considered, it was an amazing initiative and a remarkable event—but this epidemic won't be stopped by initiatives and events. It can only be stopped through consistent, day-in-day-out efforts; a mass Black mobilization is required.
The number and quality of events that happened were extremely impressive. I think they got the attention for the day, but we'll see if the attention can be sustained over time.
We released our national report, The Time Is Now, which people can download from our Web site ( www.blackaids.org ) . The reason we released this report is so that people can have something to hold on to. We also did a campaign with Black hip-hop artists and young Black Hollywood in which we released ads on Black radio and television. These things can go beyond Feb. 7.
WCT: Tell me about the Black AIDS Institute.
PW: We were originally the African-American AIDS Policy and Training Institute. We changed our name about four years ago because: a ) not all Black people in this country identify with the term 'African American' and b ) we wanted to include the entire African diaspora, including African-Caribbeans.
Our mission is to stop the AIDS epidemic in Black communities by mobilizing Black institutions ( like civil-rights organizations; the media; and fraternities and sororities ) and individuals. Our motto is 'Our People, Our Problem, Our Solution.'
WCT: Your mother is pretty much an activist, but I wonder: Was it harder to come out to her or tell you that you're HIV-positive?
PW: It's interesting; neither was difficult at all. I'm very, very lucky in that both of my parents [ mother Ina and father Tebo ] are very clear about unconditional love. [ Some ] of the gifts that people can give their children are a sense of well-being, a sense of confidence, and a sense that you're alright—whoever you are. At every point of my life, as I discovered who I am, I knew that I could go to my parents because I've always been confident that my parents would love me.
People talk about my mother because she's more vocal but my father has been absolutely remarkable. I didn't have any of those issues that gay men have when they talk with their fathers. When I told him that I'm gay, he said that he loved me no matter what and, as far as he was concerned, nothing had changed. When I told them about my HIV status, they were clear that we were going to be on this journey together.
WCT: A recent New York Times article featured experts who advocated routine AIDS testing for all adults. What's your take on that recommendation?
PW: I believe firmly in routine access to HIV testing for all individuals; I don't believe in automatic and mandatory testing for everyone.
I think that it's an inappropriate way to spend resources—especially when those resources are so limited. I think targeted strategic testing and prevention is a more effective strategy.
WCT: What have you learned about yourself since being diagnosed with HIV [ which occurred in 1980 ] ?
PW: I guess the most important thing is that I have a purpose and that every day we have an opportunity to change the world, even in a small way. I am regularly surprised when I have the courage to try to live up to that possibility.
Windy City Times: What was it like in your household as your children grew up?
Ina Wilson: It was a common, middle-class household with two working parents and four siblings ( three sons and one daughter ) who went to school.
WCT: When I asked Phill about coming out and then revealing that he is HIV-positive, he said that neither was particularly hard to tell you. Was one item particularly harder to hear than the other?
IW: It wasn't for me because Phill and I always had a very close relationship. He was always able to communicate whatever he felt—and we've maintained that [ level of ] communication all our lives.
Actually, I was the first one he came out to. When he did, he got me a book called Loving Someone Gay; this was in 1979. So I took the book—but I never read it and I still haven't read it because I didn't feel that I had to learn how to love my son. I didn't bother taking the news to rest of the family; I let him do it. My philosophy is to let each individual be his own person and communicate themselves. The siblings learned first and then the grandchildren found out.
WCT: What about when he told you that he's positive?
IW: He actually told me that his partner was positive; I didn't realize at that point that there was a possibility that he was positive, too. When he told me about his partner, I felt that he needed to separate himself [ from him ] because of how dangerous the disease is. Then, he told me that he is also positive. I said 'Well, this is just something that we have to deal with,' and we did. The way we dealt with it was through communication. He told the family about the disease and educated us about the disease.
We've spent a lot of time together. The thing I would share with any person who has a loved one with AIDS is to spend as much time as possible. I feel that we only have so much time anyway. I look at AIDS like any other life-threatening disease. I'm a diabetic; if I don't take care of my diabetes, I could die. So you take the measures necessary to live as long as you can.
WCT: Do you think that your husband, Tebo, looks at the disease the same way that you do?
IW: Yes, I do. Whenever Phill's engaged in anything, we both go to support him.
WCT: Why do you think that so many families have problems with having gay or HIV-positive loved ones?
IW: It's because of what society dictates—which is to be fearful of the unknown. As an example, when people first become knowledgeable of how you can contract AIDS; they'll think you can get it from shaking hands. Once they become educated, however, they 'soften up' and become more comfortable with those with the disease.
Another thing that families have problems with is with the community accepting them. Believe me, the world knows about Phill.
WCT: How did your church react at first?
IW: Well, some people still talk about Phill being gay and being stricken with AIDS. But if people want information from me, I'll share it. I don't try to dispel the rumors or change feelings; I let people do their own thing. Later on, it sometimes turns out that they end up with a loved one who has HIV or AIDS. Everybody I know actually knows someone who has HIV or AIDS, whether they tell you or not.
One member of our church has a son with AIDS, but because the family was not educated they swept the disease under the rug. It affected the connections with his family and the church. When I tried to communicate with the mother, she wasn't ready so I didn't push the issue. After the son passed away, she started to talk with me.
WCT: What about Phill makes you the proudest?
IW: It has to be his honesty and just being the type of person he is. He travels all over the world to help people—and I don't know of too many people who do that.
To find out more about the Black AIDS Institute, visit www.blackaids.org .