How did you get the courage to come out openly?That is a question people always ask in relation to my living openly with HIV. I usually give different answers depending on what effect I am trying to achieve at the time. One answer I have never given however, is the truth. The source of my ‘courage’ is that I am able to stand on the shoulders of giants. One giant, I remember very clearly.
I remember being transfixed to the television screen, almost 2 decades ago, as this lady was interviewed by the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). A lot of what she was saying was alien to me but it was the way she was introduced that had caught my attention. This woman just declared publicly that she was HIV positive. H-I-V! To understand my shock, you have to place it in context; this was the early 2000s when HIV was not just a stigma, but a curse. If you were diagnosed HIV positive people literally watched from the side-lines, waiting for you to waste away and die. Even the medical personnel were unsure of what they were dealing with. The media was still broadcasting those gory images of emaciated, bedridden people in generic HIV prevention *PSAs, there was no Google to assure us of HIV being just a virus, there were no structures, no data. And this young, well-spoken woman was telling everybody thatSHEhad it.
Over time I would follow her in the way you could follow people then. I watched every TV interview in which she appeared, read every article about her I could find in the magazines and read her column in This Day faithfully. I was fascinated by her, in the way one is fascinated by a weird, exotic creature. I didn’t think she was cool, by any means. I just thought she was bloody courageous and had tons of confidence. When I watched her protesting, I thought she was somewhat belligerent, especially as I did not know and then, and could not be bothered, to find out what exactly she was fighting for.
I owe many things to her.
If today, HIV treatment is considered a priority of government it is because Rolake Odetoyinbo and her peers walked and fought to make it so. If today we have PSAs that castigate stigmatisation and discrimination it is because of Rolake and her peers who came out publicly to show that the ‘P’ in *PLWHA meant People. And if today, I am considered brave, courageous, and inspiring, it is because I am propelled by the fact that Rolake did it first.
When I began to realise that coming out about my illness was a necessary step to what I had planned, I was petrified. Worried about what everyone would say and how I would continue forward if it turned out badly. I was a nervous, fidgeting, sweating wreck. But every instance of fear was banished by a memory of Rolake Odetoyinbo. I would remember something she said in an interview, the look on her face, or something she wrote and I would pull myself together. If she could do it, I can. And I did.
The lessons here are many
1. You never know who you are inspiring, and sometimes that inspiration could be saving a life or two.
2. Everything you (want to) do matters. Some plans are so inspired that the effect can only be seen years from now. Don’t give up.
I imagine that all those years ago, her dreams of the future were somewhat different. Rolake Odetoyinbo would definitely want young girls watching her to be positively influenced by her, but I am doubtful that she would ever conceive that one girl watching her would eventually (have to) walk in her footsteps so many years later. Nor do I. However, if she has to, I hope my legacy to that young girl will be and as solid and as rousing as Rolake Odetoyinbo’s to me.
- PSA — Public Service Announcement
- PLWHA — People Living With HIV and AIDS