The images of suffering caused by hiv/aids trouble Henrieese Roberts, 64. She has watched people struggle with ailments, be jailed and even die as a result of contracting the virus. More than half of her life has been spent advocating for people to talk about matters of sexuality and health.
“We fear the disease instead of learning how to circumvent it and be loving to people that do have it,” Roberts said.
Motivated by close personal experiences with friends and family, she began working to raise awareness about public health, sexuality and hiv/aids issues nearly 30 years ago.
For the past year, she has been writing about these topics in Street Sense newspaper and working as a vendor in the Annapolis, Md., area.
Originally from Mississippi, her advocacy efforts led her to Chicago where she trained with the American Red Cross as a health educator and worked in public access television. She moved to the Washington, D.C., region two years ago. She hopes to produce films about health education and history. She feels film is a powerful education vehicle that can reach people with messages they might miss in other mediums.
“Generally we’re not the type of people you can sit down and have a humane loving conversation [with] and learn something,” she said.
Roberts said she believes current laws that criminalize the transmission of hiv/aids are too harsh. According to the nonprofit Center for hiv Law and Policy, 32 states and two U.S. territories have criminalized hiv exposure to some extent.
“Punish and pay… that’s the way health education is going,” she said. “People are paying a very high price because they are going to prison.”
She has watched hiv/aids change the lives of people. It has damaged their health and also presented challenges in terms of personal privacy, employment and housing. The disease can be entirely crippling for a poor person. Roberts makes this point one of her key messages.
“I ask people, ‘Can they afford to catch this disease?’”
“There are many people that can’t afford their medications and are on waiting lists to be treated. There are also a lot of unnecessary deaths.”
Roberts admits that advocacy has taken over her life, but she still enjoys heading to Old Country Buffet to indulge in a few plates of hearty meat and potatoes. In 1992, she was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, an infectious disease that has rendered her visually impaired, thus hampering her filmmaking and photography career. Still she remains optimistic and continues to persevere in her photography studies.
“I am going to actualize because I am willing to work hard,” Roberts said.
Through her work she hopes people become more sexually conscious, avoid spreading the disease and reduce the stigma associated with the infection.