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World AIDS Day

On Friday, Dec. 8, Beloit Public Health Initiative hosted their annual World AIDS day celebration. The event kicked off at six with a health fair, free food and free AIDS testing from AIDS Resource Center Wisconsin. The health fair included many local organizations such as First Choice Clinic & Community Action,Beloit College Health and Wellness Center, Beloit Domestic Violence Center, Yellow Brick Road, Sexual Assault and Recovery Program, Health Net of Rock County, Rock County Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Task Force (JM4C), Beloit Health Systems and Rock County Health Department.

Another feature of World Aids Day was the body mapping activity, a practice wherein you trace the outline of your body and then fill in it with things that are meaningful to you, your body, your mind, your future and your past. This practice originated in South Africa with individuals who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and wanted to counteract the stigma of their disease. Many students participated, including the guest speaker, Cass Downing.

At 7:30 p.m., Cass Downing took the stage. As Downing started her speech, she admitted she was nervous to share her personal story with such a large group. The audience laughed and from there Downing captured all of their attention.

Downing told the audience about her journey and struggles living with an HIV diagnosis, as well as her life’s experience. She opened up about her relationship with her not-so-conventional family, which was sometimes supportive and sometimes not. She described her life as a recovered addict  — part of the reason she believes she got HIV. She also told the audience about her identity journey, how at first she identified as gay (because that’s what her peers were calling her), and then fell in love with drag and fully accepted her identity as a transgender woman. Throughout the speech Downing joked about her co-dependency, her struggles, her age and herself.

During the Q&A portion, an individual asked Downing if she had any advice for young transgender people going out into the world. Downing said she doesn’t like to give advice but that she’d rather just share her story — and let individuals take advice from there. When asked what helped her go through life managing individuals who didn’t understand her identity, Downing simply said, “With empathy”. Downing pointed out the importance of understanding that not everyone knows everything. She admitted that she was not educated on every subject and would not like individuals to snap at her simply because she hadn’t faced a particular issue yet. She added that it can be difficult sometimes, because some people simply don’t want to learn but you have to let go of that anger sometimes.

At end the night, Downing’s friend took the microphone and told the crowd this was exactly where Downing had wanted to start her birthday weekend, and asked if the audience would join in singing happy birthday. The audience sang with enthusiasm.

Next semester, the Beloit Public Health Initiative with be hosting a similar event on the opioid epidemic in Rock County.

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