Op-ed: A Letter-Writing Campaign to the Next Generation 

By Advocate Contributors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 07 2011 4:00 AM ET

Ignorance about HIV and AIDS became clear to me during, of all
things, a fund-raiser for fighting the disease that I stumbled upon in June.
While I was hanging out a bar in Dallas, a very young man stopped by to sell raffle
tickets and informed me that the money was for “those poor old sad people.”

Who? I asked.

“You know ... them,” he answered with a wink.

Little did I know he was referring to me and millions of
others living with this disease. I now know what a “breaking point” feels like.
They say it takes one voice to start a movement, and you know what? They’re
absolutely right.

“I am HIV-positive,” I said politely, “and I am not poor or
sad.” From then on the evening was a blur (and a bust, since I
spent it either in tears or in anger).

When the next morning arrived a nagging voice was telling me
to “seize this opportunity.” I remember sitting in front of my laptop with
tears running down my face and my fingers flying. Within hours, I had letters
out to all of my friends, the Dallas Voice,
the Resource Center of Dallas, AIDS Arms, and a few other organizations.

“Please know that regardless of how this hurt me personally
or how angry I am, this is not about me,” I concluded at the end of my account
of what had happened. “This is about the increasing number of men between the
ages of 18 and 25 who are contracting HIV in our community. According to my doctor,
it is spreading like wildfire. Something needs to be done.”

What I now know for sure is that we must educate our youth
about HIV and AIDS because it was obvious on that night that something has been
lost in translation.

I’ve sent letter after letter to radio stations, TV
stations, the mayor, my friends across the country and across the pond, and
every celebrity and their representation I could find that might listen to my
story. I even started posting videos on YouTube. The Dallas Voice was
the first to print my letter, which led to quite an uproar within our
community, including some who said they wished I would die of AIDS.

But I kept writing letters.

Then The Advocate
took interest, bloggers posted my letter, I appeared on a podcast, and I
plastered that letter all over Facebook. 
There was no way I was going to lay down and just take it. Something had
to be done. Someone had to say “enough.”

Two months later I was asked to speak at a group of young
gay men and women about HIV and AIDS. One of the employees told me that many of the
youth describe HIV as “an old person’s disease.”

For the record, I am a 45-year-old man who still does yoga
and jogs (when my knees allow it). HIV hasn’t stopped me from volunteering for
organizations in Cincinnati, Memphis, Atlanta, and, for the last five years, at the Resource Center in Dallas. I’m also involved with the Hillcrest House and
Raising Malawi, which helps children in Africa who have lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses. But it’s comments like that which remind me there
is still so much more that needs to be done.

For my part, I’ve created a Facebook page called “How Would
You Know?” to help stomp out the stigma of HIV and AIDS and provide education on
where to get tested. It’s not going to solve the world’s problems on its own,
but my intention is to offer a one-stop shop (if you will) full of facts,
stories of encouragement, breaking news, and the list of needs that goes on and on.

I’ve also developed a Youth Community Forum where education
will come directly from physicians and vaccine researchers, or others who just
want to tell their stories — like I have. I now understand what it means to be
“called.” No one chooses their calling: it chooses you. I am just a small-town
Kentucky-bred man who is, let’s face it, a nobody. But like any of us can, I
come with a voice of passion, a desire for hope, and a fire burning inside me
to change the world. 

If my one little voice can do all this in less than three
months, imagine if everyone spoke up and
said “Enough.” What would be the state of the world in reference to HIV and AIDS?
Would there be any stigma at all?

 Donnie Pangburn is a regular volunteer for HIV/AIDS causes and works in the human resource/training and development field in the financial services industry. He is currently single, living in Dallas.