As anyone who knows her can tell you, Elizabeth McLendon may not be infected but she is affected.
McLendon currently works as an Advocacy Mobilizer with AIDS Healthcare Foundation, but her journey as an advocate for HIV/AIDS began over 35 years ago when she moved from her hometown in South Carolina out to San Francisco, California. She arrived a few years before the AIDS epidemic hit and was a firsthand witness to the damage.
“I am not exaggerating when I say that when it hit about 200 people who had died [that I knew] I just stopped counting. I didn’t stop losing people, but I stopped counting.” said McLendon.
Throughout her 21 years of living in California, during a time when nearly everyone died from the disease, McLendon became permanently affected by what she witnessed and sought to make a difference where she could.
While the AIDS Healthcare Foundation provides care for those living with HIV/AIDS, McLendon works towards educating people and promoting prevention of the disease. She says that most of the people she talks to are in denial that it could affect them, even those who intellectually know that a germ does not discriminate. She finds that most people mistakenly think they can distinguish an infected person from a healthy person.
“They still think that if someone is nice… charming… … that they are not going to have a disease. That is just fundamentally bizarre and misguided and that’s part of what puts us all at risk.”
Through her work with educating the public on HIV/AIDS, she has found that the public awareness of the disease has not progressed and people do not understand that they themselves could become infected. This is one reason why she believes in teaching comprehensive sex education to youth, so that they understand the consequences that could result from having sex.
“We don’t let kids drive without giving them driver’s ed, why on earth do we let the engines of puberty start cranking up at 10 years old these days in some people, but we are not teaching them about the consequences of getting sexual. We have got to teach sex ed.”
She feels that comprehensive sex education would mitigate many issues like unintended teen pregnancies and the spread of STIs. In South Carolina, for the past 8 years in a row, the 20-29 age group has had the highest percentage of newly diagnosed HIV patients. A number of these young people are receiving an AIDS diagnosis in their early 20s. Based on the progression of HIV/AIDS, this means that they would have been infected with HIV in their teens.
McLendon says that her field of work can sometimes make her feel like Cassandra of Troy-- knowing about the upcoming war, with its death and destruction-- but being unable to make anyone believe her.
“We’ve made progress but there is still a good distance left to go.”
But she sees the progress being made all around her, like in her church Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, where we spent almost 2 hours one afternoon talking. She proudly mentions the “Created By God” course offered in the fall that teaches middle school aged students medically accurate information about anatomy, development, and reproduction.
This church is not just any church to McLendon. It is a community she is proud of as well as a place where she feels connected to her past. Her parents were married in that cathedral, and while it’s changed since then, its place in her history is important to her because her family influenced the passion for her work that she has today.
The seed for McLendon’s belief in advocacy can be traced back to her father, Angus “Red” McLendon, who would tell her and her siblings “If you’re not voting, then shut up. Don’t whine. If you’re not working to change something, then shut up. Don’t whine.” He instilled the belief that you have no right to complain about something if you are not working to make it better. This is why when McLendon became affected by AIDS in the 80s, it altered her career and life path into the field of advocacy for HIV/AIDS and became her passion.
She describes one of her proudest moments as an advocate when in June 2012, a 10 year old boy understood the presentation she was giving and said “Mommy, people have got to start caring.” Others of these moments occur when she gets to arrange for people with HIV to meet their elected officials and accompany them to the meeting. She loves the joy of watching them get to tell their story and see it matter, when before, that person did not think it would.
One of her favorite quotes is from Milton Friedman, “Democracy is not a spectator sport” and she embodies this spirit in her work every day. And while the results can sometimes be disappointing, she continues with the fight because as she said “We may not always make the difference we hope to make, but silence is deadly.”