By PQ Monthly Staff
Itâ€™s National HIV/AIDS Women and Girls Awareness Day! Did you know that of the 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV, women 13 or older make up about 25% of all HIV diagnoses.Â In advance of this important day of consciousness-raising, PQ Monthly's Kat Endgame sat down with Jennifer Jako, a longtime HIV/AIDS activist, Cascade AIDS Project board member, and creator of the game-changing 1998 documentary Blood Lines to discuss Jako's fascinating history and future endeavors. The full version will be out in our upcoming March issue; here's a quick sample to give you an idea of how much the narrative around HIV has changed over the years:
PQ Monthly: Youâ€™ve used the story of how you became infected as a cautionary tale in your speaking, could you give the nutshell version?
Jennifer Jako: I was a pretty sheltered kid so I was in the process of discovering everything from what sorts of food I liked to what my boundaries are. I ended up partying with a friend in a situation where he and I never meant to have sex. We were completely wasted and he wanted to have sex and I didnâ€™t. I remember clearly saying no, and I also remember being so out of it that I didnâ€™t really care what he did. The next day, I remember that kind of broken, gut-wrenching feeling of â€œOh my God, I just had sex with my friend!â€ and â€œHow do we talk to each other about this?â€ We couldnâ€™t figure it out so there was complete silence until almost ten months later when I accidently found out my positive test result.
PQ: Thatâ€™s a lot to deal with. How did you find out you were pos?
JJ: I was 18, about to start college and I knew I was going to meet a lot of people so I thought â€œIâ€™m going to get checked out.â€ Â Iâ€™d only had a pap smear once before. I went and talked to a nurse and she encouraged me to have an HIV test because Iâ€™d had six partners. I didnâ€™t like needles at all, but I thought â€œI'm gonna have this test taken and then I can motivate someone else to do the same.â€
I skipped out of that office never thinking I had anything. I got the shock of my life two weeks later. Iâ€™ve never had another sexually transmitted infection. I just got HIV. I got something permanent and at the time deadly. My prognosis at the time of diagnosis was that Iâ€™d be lucky to live healthy until I was 25.
At the time the life expectancy for women was about 7 years. I I feel like the power to my story is the fact that I didnâ€™t have very many partners. There have been many people in my life who had 50+ partners and didnâ€™t contract HIV, I had unprotected sex twice. Two times! Thatâ€™s really slim odds.
PQ: Yeah, that is really slim odds.
JJ: Â It only takes one time to infect. We all have to establish what is safe for us, everyone has a degree of risk that they are willing to engage in, but I think unfortunately with HIV a lot of people, myself included, option themselves out of the risk. Iâ€™m sure it was communicated to me that HIV is a disease that is sexually transmitted amongst humans, but what I understood as a teenager was that itâ€™s communicated amongst gay men and IV drug users, neither of which I am!
Because of who I am Iâ€™ve been able to be a secret weapon. Especially in the early days when AIDS was not a friendly subject. In conservative rural schools homosexuality couldnâ€™t be mentioned and the word condom couldnâ€™t be said, but they were allowing us to talk about HIV so that was a win!Â Be certain to look for PQ's full interview with her, to be released later this month. Jako will also beÂ showing the promotional video for her new project Empowered as part of the theÂ Women and Girls Health FairÂ at PCC Cascade on March 22nd. If you'd like to see it in advance â€” and further understand the critical work which has been and remains to be done in regards to battling the stigma of HIV â€” watch Bloodlines and the promotional video for Empowered: Bloodlines Trailer from Matt Sengbusch on Vimeo.