Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS

Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS

Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS

Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS

Synopsis

Workable Sisterhoodis an empirical look at sixteen HIV-positive women who have a history of drug use, conflict with the law, or a history of working in the sex trade. What makes their experience with the HIV/AIDS virus and their political participation different from their counterparts of people with HIV? Michele Tracy Berger argues that it is the influence of a phenomenon she labels "intersectional stigma," a complex process by which women of color, already experiencing race, class, and gender oppression, are also labeled, judged, and given inferior treatment because of their status as drug users, sex workers, and HIV-positive women. The work explores the barriers of stigma in relation to political participation, and demonstrates how stigma can be effectively challenged and redirected. The majority of the women in Berger's book are women of color, in particular African Americans and Latinas. The study elaborates the process by which these women have become conscious of their social position as HIV-positive and politically active as activists, advocates, or helpers. She builds a picture of community-based political participation that challenges popular, medical, and scholarly representations of "crack addicted prostitutes" and HIV-positive women as social problems or victims, rather than as agents of social change. Berger argues that the women's development of a political identity is directly related to a process called "life reconstruction." This process includes substance- abuse treatment, the recognition of gender as a salient factor in their lives, and the use of nontraditional political resources.

Excerpt

I am sitting in a living room, in Detroit, full of decoratively placed plants. The
colorful plants help to make the sparsely furnished room feel comfortable. My
attention is drawn back to Nicole, a forty-two-year-old African American
woman sitting in front of me on the couch. She is wearing an amber colored
dress. Her braids are held back by an attractive hair tie, and she possesses
a clear cadence to her voice. We have been talking for about an hour, and
all my senses are alert. Nicole is about to tell me more of her recent political
projects. From a manila folder, Nicole pulls out some materials to show me.
Her file is crammed with press clippings, letters from Congresspeople, and
grant applications.

Nicole is a former sex worker, former small-time drug dealer, and former
crack addict. She contracted HIV five years ago; she has been and continues to
be a stigmatized woman. Yet these categories alone I mention above contribute
little to understanding her life when she was those other things, nor, more im
portantly, what her life has become now. She is a woman living with HIV who
has become politically engaged. She is one of the foremost people involved with
women and AIDS activism in Detroit. That afternoon we talk about Detroit
politics, black male and female relationships, and prostitution. After talking
with Nicole I feel that I am on to “something” about women and political
engagement; I am learning from her. (Fieldnote 1996)

THIS FIELDNOTE, written in 1996, initiated a new way of thinking about the various women I had been studying in Detroit. What had begun several years ago as a research inquiry into the status of female lawbreakers, a “story” about crime, prostitution, and the ravages of crack cocaine use, had instead over time become transformed into a “story” explicating the lives of stigmatized, politically active HIV-positive women. This story was recast to highlight women (formerly active female lawbreakers) who after being diagnosed with the HIV/AIDS virus changed their lives. Finally, it evolved into a story about stigma, struggle, and a group of women who are nontraditional political actors. The process of how Nicole and other women reconstituted their lives once they became HIVpositive, how they created and utilized a web of nontraditional resources and participated in their communities became the cornerstone of this . . .

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