A full room stared at the black-and-white photo of a smiling 13-year-old boy on the screen in the Indiana Memorial Union's Tudor Room.
The boy was Ryan White, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 at the age of 13 after a blood transfusion. White died six years later in 1990.
On Wednesday, his mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, stood in front of his photo and presented the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award to Sandra Thurman, called "Sandy" by friends, in his honor.
“Sandy, you are the biggest sweetheart,” White-Ginder said. “There is no part of this AIDS epidemic that Sandy hasn’t touched in some way.”
Thurman received the award for her work in HIV prevention, care, treatment and policy through organizations including the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator.
When her son died, White-Ginder said she felt like her life was over. But then she was called by lawmakers to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the CARE Act, and Thurman became an ally and friend who helped back her up.
“There were very few women in D.C., so Sandy was a very big comfort and support for me,” White-Ginder said. “Sandy became an instant friend.”
William Yarber, founder of the Rural Center for AIDS and STD Prevention, said it is everyone’s duty to help society be more humane by changing how the world looks at disease, just as Ryan White did and Thurman does.
White lived in Kokomo, Indiana, where he fought stigma against the disease alongside his mother so that he could go to school and live without discrimination.
After he sued for his right to go to school, he had to use disposable eating utensils and a separate bathroom.
“He was spit on, called names, shunned by his classmates and his teachers,” Yarber said. “He said he was labeled as a troublemaker and his mom, an unfit mother.”
White lived five years longer than the six months doctors predicted and died in 1990, just months before Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act in his name.
The act passed the same year White would have started his first year at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Thurman said while White and his mother turned the tide against AIDS-related discrimination, challenges still remain.
She said the fight against AIDS must include tackling the underlying problems of racism, sexism, homophobia and poverty.
“The virus itself continues to do to societies what it does to the human body — it finds the weakest points and attacks there,” she said.
When the LGBT community and its allies united to care for those with AIDS at the start of the epidemic, Thurman said they had to battle against homophobia. She said this homophobia still exists in the United States and the rest of the world today.
She said AIDS is and was more than a public health issue. Instead, she said it is a sociocultural problem that still suffers from prejudices against the poor and minorities.
But Thurman said she has seen how people’s hearts and minds have changed since the AIDS epidemic erupted. She said this change is proof that there is hope.
After the talk, attendees walked off with papers with a quote from Ryan White when he was 13 and being treated for AIDS.
“AIDS can destroy a family if you let it, but luckily for my sister and me, Mom taught us to keep going," it read. "Don’t give up. Be proud of who you are, and never feel sorry for yourself."
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