Written by | Ray Cornelius
To look at Denise Stokes, one could never tell that she is HIV positive.
You would never know that she was a victim of rape at age 13, diagnosed with HIV at age 16 and living a life on the streets—homeless and on crack cocaine.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Stokes was able to turn her tragic situation into a triumphant victory!
Stokes kicked her crack addiction and used her diagnosis as a platform to help bring about awareness and prevention. A 30-plus year AIDS survivor, Stokes is one of the leading faces for African American women living successfully with the disease.
She has garnered a few accolades along the way including her service as an advisor to former President Bill Clinton on AIDS policy. She is also a spokesperson for BET’s Wrap-It-Up HIV-AIDS Campaign and a much sought-after motivational speaker and now book author.
RC spoke to Ms. Stokes recently about her new book From the Crack House to White House: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities, what it was like to work with the former President and her thoughts on the latest in HIV drug prevention treatment.
RC: You’ve had the opportunity to advise former President Bill Clinton on national HIV-AIDS policy, what was that experience like?
DS: There is no way to describe it. I think even when I got the first invitation from President Clinton I didn’t believe it was real. I thought that someone was playing a hoax on me. I don’t think it actually hit me until I stood there and took the oath to protect my country against enemies foreign and domestic that I really realized the gravity of the position that I was being put in. So, I think I felt more empowered because I knew I could bring a very loud voice from my constituency, which were people who were below the poverty level, people living homeless, people affected by substance abuse in addition to HIV. It was people that were disenfranchised in so many ways. I brought that voice to the table and I was very proud to do that.
RC: When you look at the latest numbers and the disproportionate rate of HIV infection amongst African American women now in 2012, did you see that as a growing trend at the time of your infection in the 1980’s?
DS: Absolutely! There were many of us who saw that and it’s like we sent out the cry but no one wanted to hear it. You have to remember that I was an African American female living with HIV when they were still saying that it was “this” or it was “that” and it was very difficult to get people to believe that I even had this disease. It became even more difficult to make other black women aware that this does impact us and it’s really about our choices and what we decide and what we don’t decide.
RC: What are your thoughts about the latest advancement in drug prevention treatment? In particular, the drug Truvada which is now being used as an HIV preventative?
DS: Microbicides is something we’ve been pushing for a very long time and I think it’s an amazing step. I think we have to keep it in perspective that it doesn’t give people a ticket to just go out and be reckless. We still want the main message to be responsibility. Be aware. Get Tested. Having Truvada as a preventative against HIV is extremely important. You know, we’ve been fighting real hard for female controlled microbicides for a very long time because in so many cultures, even within America, there are so many women that are disenfranchised or looked at as less than citizens. So Truvada is a very good first step in that also.
RC: Let’s talk about your book…
DS: Well, my book is called “From the Crack House to the White House” and it’s something I’ve been writing for over 15 years. I just decided to be completely transparent about my life. This book is not only about the things that have happened to me and the violence that was perpetrated against me. But it’s also about the really poor choices I made in my own life and what that journey was for me to get the help that I needed and become in empowered in a way to make better decisions for myself and then encourage other people to do so. So, it’s a really powerful book! Its gut wrenching but don’t be afraid to read it because it will definitely leave you charged up with hope.
From the Crack House to the White House is available now on Amazon.com
To read more about Denise’s story, log onto www.denisestokes.com