Positive Thoughts: Activist’s Med Strike Leads To AIDS Organization Ousters
Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad refused his HIV medication to protest Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center over sexual misconduct
By Savas Abadsidis
Mazzoni Center is an LGBT-focused organization that provides healthcare, prevention services and other programming focused on LGBT health. The organization came under fire recently because of alleged sexual misconduct charges made against their former medical director, Dr. Robert Winn.
The sexual misconduct came about via complaints from patients, most of whom are people of color. Rather than alert the authorities, Mazzoni Center CEO Nurit Shein (now former) and Board President Jimmy Ruiz (also now former), brought in an independent investigator and attempted to quiet the story. This caused great consternation amongst other board members and throughout the organization.
After a flurry of board meetings and employee reports continued to roll in, Dr. Robert Winn took a leave of absence on April 13.
Following weeks of denial and attempted public relation’s spins on the allegations and subsequent investigation, Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad, a writer, activist and patient (as well as former employee), initiated a walk out on April 11, to protest the cover up. Muhammad was joined by 30 staff members.
At a second walkout on April 20, almost 70 staff members, the Office of LGBT Affairs, and the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs released a signed statement wherein they vowed to “stand with the community, staff and patients of the Mazzoni Center, as we call for increased transparency and accountability throughout the investigation of serious allegations of misconduct.”
The medical providers released an independent statement as well.
At this point, misconduct and power abuse had become apparent. Shein had become a constant source of rancor within the organization as Muhammad explained her behavior as “a denial of institutional racism within Mazzoni center,” and that Shein “perpetuated a culture that targeted black and brown staff.”
Mazzoni Center was required by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (PCHR) Gayborhood nonprofits to conduct a racial bias training after reports of racial discrimination persisted. When this walkout failed to bring about any changes, Muhammad took a vow to discontinue his HIV medical treatments until Shein and Ruiz left the organization. Four days later, they did.
We spoke to Mr. Muhammad, whose med adherence protest has put him at the heart of the story, yet whose voice is conspicuously absent from most of the subsequent media coverage (with the exception of TheBody.com and mic.com).
What provoked such an extreme measure of resistance from you?
As a black queer poz person in the United States of Oppression, I have to resist, fight for my humanity and others, all while trying to survive and not die from unwavering targets on my back. In the U.S. and globally, there are penalties for blackness. As someone who is “dark-skinned,” Muslim-raised, positive and queer, I don’t know any other experience than resistance. I’ve had to fight to minimize impacts on my life since I was born.
This was not easy to do. I resist the narrative of martyrdom, so I wrestled with myself on this. I spoke to people close to me, to doctors and other medical providers. I know my body and my health status and thought and concluded that this is a useful form of resistance and a show of solidarity with Mazzoni staff. I want to amplify and make it clear to people the gravity of the violence that Mazzoni Center’s leadership has perpetuated against the community and staff. Mazzoni Center’s executive leadership is an egregious example of capitalist patriarchy at its most pernicious. Mazzoni Center does not see its constituent patients as fully human. Mazzoni is operating like a corporation and therefore deliverables, funders and legacy are placed as valuable, while low-paid staff workers and patients deal with with sexual assault, cycles of poverty and increased surveillance because of poz, trans and disabled identities.
I do this because the Mazzoni’s board of directors have fully backed and colluded with this culture of silence and intimidation. I do this because a dear friend of mine had been harmed by Dr. Winn. I do this because it is liberatory.
Have there been similar actions of resistance in other social justice movements?
When I think of similarities between my resistance and that of other poz revolutionaries, I can’t help but be reminded of Zackie Achmat (the South African AIDS activist) who started the world’s first drug strike. I stand on his shoulders.
Did you experience ill health effects of skipping your antiretroviral medications?
So, a little bit about my particular HIV: I’m healthy and undetectable. I don’t have any resistance, medicinally speaking. I was adherent to meds previous to stoppage. I fully suspended meds when I began the strike. I’m OK.
How did the community respond?
The reactions have varied from reluctant support to outright anger about the decision I made. People found words of support, but there was definitely an atmosphere of stigmatizing me for being irresponsible for not taking my meds. This was the only way I saw to make them listen. I think of it as akin to Mandela going on a hunger strike in prison. It came across to me as an act of control, manipulation and an outright negation of my own agency.
In the world where there is HIV-related stigma, most people don’t know how to support the poz community. They either shame you into taking meds or call you predatory, especially if you’re black, for not controlling your viral-load. I was told that I could look like a patient from the film Philadelphia if I didn’t take my meds. The framework of these arguments and criticism reminds me of what is at the heart of white supremacy and its conduit capitalism: within these constructs people really believe they own you. They tell you that your life belongs to others and you must think of them first. Denying autonomy is probably the worst form of violence ever! I know that family, friends and lovers are scared and that’s OK. I ask them to turn their attention on the leadership of these organizations and elected officials to stop Nurit Shein and other institutions from continuing to harm those made vulnerable by oppression.
What is the overall outcome you hope for?
What’s desired is a complete overhaul of Mazzoni’s leadership as a signal to the rest of the city that bad deals, nepotism and anti-blackness will no longer go unchecked as long as the Black and Brown Workers Collective is present. We won’t sit anymore, because when we rise, so does the community.
Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad is a Philly-born liberationist organizer with the Black and Brown Workers Collective. They contribute to thebody.com and otherwise provide spaces with anti-oppression trainings with the BlaQollective. Recently they launched a podcast For Colored Boyz, which can be found on SoundCloud.
Muhammed previously worked at Mazzoni Center as an HIV prevention counselor and as the coordinator of The Real Impact Project. Muhammad’s mission as a writer and activist is to disrupt the prevailing narratives that create an artificial construction of divide between the poz and non-poz community.
Savas Abadsidis is the managing editor of Plus magazine. This article originally appeared in Plus. Additional research by Rahel Neirene. This column is a project of Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, The Body and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites – http://hivplusmag.com, http://positivelyaware.com, http://poz.com and http://thebody.com – for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.