Kathie Hiers is the CEO of AIDS Alabama. Hand-selected by President Obama to serve as the only Southerner on the federal HIV/ AIDS advisory committee, Hiers is currently working with Senators Jeff Sessions and Kay Hagan to improve federal housing funding for those living with HIV/ AIDS.
The documentary deepsouth, which chronicles Hiers’ efforts, won Sidewalk Film Festival’s Shout Best Documentary Award and will be shown Friday, May 3, at the Edge Theater.
Hiers spoke with Weld about the evolution of HIV/ AIDS in our community.
WELD: How did you first get involved with HIV/ AIDS outreach?
Kathie Hiers: As a younger person, when the epidemic first really hit in the South, mid-‘80s, I lost a lot of friends. Back in those days, people just died. I actually started a little nonprofit in Mobile that was a make-a-wish foundation for people with HIV/ AIDS. Basically, all we could do would was help people have a big last Christmas or Thanksgiving meal with their families. They were being quarantined in hospitals then, and we’d go visit them. While it was a really sad time, I did enjoy doing something [helpful], because it impacted my community so much.
WELD: And at AIDS Alabama?
KH: I began working full time in the HIV arena in ‘95. I walked into the local HIV service organization and was hired that day. I got on the board at AIDS Alabama, and the rest is history.
AIDS Alabama is an amazing organization. I don’t think most people understand the scope of it — almost 90 employees and an $8 million budget. Does tremendous stuff. Just the housing we run is incredible. Birmingham really needs more low-income housing, especially for people with HIV. They don’t need to be on the streets for a variety of reasons.
WELD: How are the services at AIDS Alabama now different than your Mobile programming in the ‘80s?
KH: We act as a service umbrella to other service providers. We’re the only AIDS service organization that covers all the counties in the state. There’s no other state that uses this model where we’re like the mother ship. You can be in Pineapple or Birmingham and still get housing assistance, transportation, basic things. We have hundreds and hundreds of partnerships across the state.
Oftentimes, we’re the ones who find the newly positives. In the Birmingham area, we serve thousands of people a year, not including our education program.
WELD: How does the education program function?
KH: We’ve got a big program from the Center for Disease Control where we reach out to young minority gay men, because that’s a population that’s being hit right now. We also do a lot of work with minority women, because a lot of black women are getting HIV and don’t know they’re at risk because they think they’re in a monogamous relationship or are married. We have one program called Beauty in Knowing — developed by my coworker Daffina Ward — where we go into cosmetology schools and teach them everything from self-esteem to HIV, and when they go into their practices, they continue to distribute that information. That program has won some awards.
We’re in the school systems as much as we can be, given the limitations in the South. It depends on the principal and the health teachers and whoever is in charge. Some schools wants us to be realistic with teaching sexual education and health, and in some schools, we joke that we can’t say the “c” word [condoms] and ignore the fact that 75 percent of high school seniors are sexually active, and the South tops the charts in STDs, teenage pregnancy, the whole nine yards — it ain’t working.
It’s interesting in Alabama. We have a statute on the books that says the state or public schools systems are required to teach HIV, but it has to be abstinence-based with nine or 10 specific things taught, including homosexuality is not accepted by society and homosexuality is illegal. Those are mandates by the law even though homosexuality isn’t illegal. Sodomy is, but that’s not homosexuality. Is that not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard?
WELD: How does AIDS Alabama deal with that mandate?
KH: We’re trying to get that changed. We had our first youth day this year, and about a hundred really smart kids went down to Montgomery to petition for change. Representative Patricia Todd has been helping us with that as well.
WELD: What should Alabama know about HIV?
KH: I had a doctor tell me he’d rather tell someone a child died than the child has HIV — that’s how out of touch people are. Now, people can live 50 years if they get tested and get better care. The meds are hard, and I don’t wish that upon anymore, but people can live an almost normal life.
A lot of people think of AIDS as being handled or under control, but it’s not in the South. Most people don’t realize that half of the epidemic is in the South. We have the highest mortality rates, the highest transmission rates. That’s horrible. We have the most people living with HIV, no matter what category you look at. Because we’re a poorer state, a lot of people are in poverty and don’t have health care at all, so there are those issues. Not to mention, the stigma is stronger here, especially in the rural areas. … All of those things are a perfect storm for HIV.
WELD: How does that tie into your federal work?
KH: We’re trying to get the federal government to focus on the South. I’m on President Obama’s advisory council. He was going to come out with the first national HIV/ AIDS strategy, but trying to talk them into putting language in about the South was very hard. Anywhere in the strategy that talks about hard hit areas says, “the South and Northeast.”
WELD: Why was getting “the South” in the language difficult?
KH: Because politically the South doesn’t have the lobbyists or the votes in the House of Representatives. We don’t have the kind of power that a New York or San Francisco has. Because of the way that’s set up politically, we get way less money than other parts of the country. Here we are with the heaviest burden of the epidemic and the least money to deal with it.
We have 14,000 people living with HIV in Alabama with 1,000 new infections every year, and one out of every three is a young person. That’s something we could change with real education.
WELD: What would that “real education” look like?
KH: Systemically, it would be better for health educators to be trained. … Look at Birmingham, we have [so many] different municipalities…in the earlier days, the Red Cross had a curriculum that was approved, but that’s fallen off the map. We’ve got to find a systemic way to get the information out there.
WELD: What will make that change?
KH: I do have great hope that the young people are less bigoted and more open-minded than older folks. As they get older, they’re supporting us. I think it’s very important to involve PTAs. Folks think parents don’t want their kids to get this information, but I don’t think that’s the case. I find parents do want their kids educated.
[On a federal level], cities used to get most of the money, because they had the bulk of the epidemic. We [initially] developed a whole system that made sense at the time, but that Ryan White law really cheated the smaller areas in the South. I worked to change that for seven years. That shifted $30 million to the South. My biggest champion on that was Jeff Sessions, which was shocking because you don’t think of Senator Sessions championing AIDS, but he didn’t want the South being cheated.
WELD: You met with the White House last week regarding Housing and Urban Development (HUD) financing. What was the purpose of that meeting?
KH: I’m working on a bill trying to change the way they divide up AIDS housing money, and Sessions is going to get his team of senators to help. The housing money is $335 million…[but] first, they cut 25 percent off the top and give it to 30 big cities. Then with the 75 percent that’s left, they divide it amongst all the states and cities, including those 30 cities again, and that’s using cumulative AIDS cases (which includes deceased people). Because of that whack formula, some areas get $200 per case and some get $10,000 per case. That’s how disparate it is. That’s what we’re working to change.
The Edge Theater in Crestwood is hosting a free screening of deepsouth Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m., with a reception at 6 p.m. and a discussion at 8:15 p.m.