Martina Clark was the first openly HIV-positive person hired to work for UNAIDS in 1996. She subsequently worked for the United Nations system for 20 years, advocating globally for the rights of people living with HIV. Her collaborative work also led to a mandatory HIV In the Workplace program internal to the United Nations system, facilitating platforms for freer dialogue and a more supportive environment for all personnel, including LGBTQ, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized populations. Clark holds a BA in International Relations and an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. Currently, she is an adjunct for LaGuardia Community College (part of CUNY) where she teaches English 101 and Critical Reading to NYC public high school students earning college credits early. Her award-winning debut book, My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19, was published in October 2021.
INCLUDED IN THIS EPISODE (But not limited to):
· A Deep Look Into Living With HIV/AIDS
· How COVID-19 And HIV/AIDS Are Connected
· Specific Implications For Women Living With HIV/AIDS
· Castro Street In The Mid 80’s
· Doctoral Disrespect
· The Benefits of HIV/AIDS
· The Importance Of Maintaining A Positive Perspective
· Implementing Changes At The United Nations
· Disease Does Not Discriminate
· Why It’s Easier To Talk To Homeless People & Children
CONNECT WITH MARTINA:
CONNECT WITH DE’VANNON:
· Pray Away Documentary (NETFLIX)
o TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tk_CqGVfxEs
· OverviewBible (Jeffrey Kranz)
· Hillsong: A Megachurch Exposed (Documentary)
· Leaving Hillsong Podcast With Tanya Levin
· Upwork: https://www.upwork.com
· FreeUp: https://freeup.net
VETERAN’S SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS
· Disabled American Veterans (DAV): https://www.dav.org
· American Legion: https://www.legion.org
· What The World Needs Now (Dionne Warwick): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfHAs9cdTqg
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You’re listening to the sex drugs and Jesus podcast, where we discuss whatever the fuck we want to! And yes, we can put sex and drugs and Jesus all in the same bed and still be all right at the end of the day. My name is De’Vannon and I’ll be interviewing guests from every corner of this world as we dig into topics that are too risqué for the morning show, as we strive to help you understand what’s really going on in your life.
There is nothing off the table and we’ve got a lot to talk about. So let’s dive right into this episode.
De’Vannon: Martina Clark is the author of My Unexpected Life, an International Memoir of two Pandemics, h i v, and Covid, 19. Now this book goes into great detail with regard to Martina Struggle living with H I V, surviving an Abusive Marriage, and her great efforts to establish an H I V awareness culture within the United Nation.
Talk about a task, right? join [00:01:00] Martina and I as we travel in time from the Castro District in San Francisco in the 1980s, all the way up to the present days. We discussed life with H I v specific implications for HIV positive women and so much more. Hello, are you beautiful souls out there? And welcome back to the Sex Drugs in Jesus podcast. I’m your host Davanon, and I have of me today the wonderful and lovely Martina Clarke and this diva here. Is a, is a woman after my own soul. She has a history of H I V. She’s also overcome Covid 19, and I have had to deal with those both.
She wrote a book called My Unexpected Life, an International Memoir of two Pandemics, h i v, and Covid 19. And that is what we are here to discuss today. H I v. And Covid 19. Martina, how are you my dear?
Martina: I am. I am well. How are you? [00:02:00]
De’Vannon: I am fan. Fucking fantastic. Awesome. You know, after having lived through two diseases, which do come to kill you, what can I possibly have to complain about?
You know, I’m here, I’m queer. I’ve got a bright pink beard going on because it’s Mardi Gra down here right now. And, you know, I’m in, I’m in the season. And you know, you know, you know, how are, how are you? I read your book and everything for fuck’s sake. How are you? , ?
Martina: I, you know, I think I’m kind of the same. I think we are both virus overachiever and considering all that we’ve been through, I, you know, I’ll complain cuz sometimes it’s fun, but I really can’t complain.
I’m here. Getting ready to turn 59 in a few weeks and never thought that would happen. And it’s all good. I feel like I’m the luckiest person alive.
De’Vannon: Right. And y’all, so in this, in this interview, I hope to give you some [00:03:00] deeper insight into, H I v, you know, how it affects you mentally and emotionally and everything like that.
Mm-hmm. , what Martina can offer that I cannot is that she was around and dealing with this back in San Francisco, you know, when all the shit started to hit the fan. Really, you know, I got H I V like in 20, like 10 years ago, 20 11, 20 10, or some shit, a far cry from what was going on back, you know, in the nineties and eighties and things like that.
So I’m super excited to talk to her. . You know, I’ve never had anybody on my show who came quite out of this era. Oh wow. Okay. Great. A side note before we get started, because I noticed like everything, when I was researching you and some of your images, I saw a repeat of what looked to be like dragonfly earrings.
Wondering what this is .
Martina: Yeah. And you I have them on right now. Exactly. . So, I thi this particular pair of [00:04:00]dragon dragonfly earrings I got in Cambodia of all places and I saw them in the hotel lobby where I was staying. And I tried to never buy stuff like in the hotel stores cause I wanna find the actual artists and support them directly.
But I just fell in love with them and I thought the hell that I’m gonna buy ’em and I wear them every single day. I’ve had them. Probably 15 years and somebody told me that when you see a dragonfly in nature, it means that the ecosystem is in good shape. So for me, I like to wear the dragonfly is partly cuz I think they’re pretty, but partly because it makes me feel like maybe my own little personal ecosystem is in good shape and I need all the help I can get
So that’s what they mean to me.
De’Vannon: That is so beautiful and it reminds me, I was, a couple of years ago, I was looking out my backyard and there’s a stream that runs back there and there was a swarm of [00:05:00] thousands of dragon flies. Oh, wow. The, the only time I’ve seen is in my life. I used to catch him. You know, as a kid, but I don’t catch insects anymore.
I just want them to be free. Yeah. But but it was like thousands of them and they happened to, to show up as the sun was setting at a certain angle and it reflected off of all of their wings sign. Oh my god. And
Martina: it . Wow. That must have been
De’Vannon: amazing. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.
In I can imagine You’re here, here for the dragonfly. Now that’s the beautiful stuff. Let’s get into the, the gritty part of this. So the cover of your. Absolutely titillating. I’m always interested in people’s book covers, you know, and what it means. One thing that, so the cover of her book y’all, is like, it looks like a passport.
Mm-hmm. her very emotionless passport photo. You know, they don’t like you to smile in those photos. They want you to look like a goddamn statue. So you pulled off your statue esque look. Very [00:06:00] well. Thank you. She’s got like a Covid virus. She’s got like h I v Now you have Venezuela. It’s the only country that I see on there.
You have 18 September, 1996. Was that the day you found out you had H I V. And was that the country you were in or what is the significance of Venezuela and that date?
Martina: That is an excellent question that nobody has ever asked me. So the reason for Venezuela is total random. Okay? It has nothing to do with anything
Basically I had an idea of the cover that I wanted and I sent some pictures of passport, actual pages of my passport to the woman who did the ultimate design and they came up. The, the variations on the stamps and why they selected Venezuela, I cannot tell you. I guess it just happened to [00:07:00] fit, but I actually found out that I had H I V in 1992 in may I think of 1992 for some bizarre reason.
I don’t know the exact date that I tested positive, which I find extremely weird. , but I haven’t committed it to memory. Or maybe I blocked it, I don’t know. But yeah, it was in 1992 when I found out. So I was in San Francisco and that is when that journey began for me.
De’Vannon: Now she was 28 years old when she found out.
Mm-hmm. . I’m gonna read a snippet. From your book, I do love story time and there are two snippets that I’m gonna read throughout this interview here. So if I may, yeah, of course. Thank you. Okay, so this snippet here, y’all, this is Martina now. She says, unnerved by my memories of the men. Who died in those years, neighbors who left for the hospital and never [00:08:00] returned the relentless funerals I found myself reliving the grief of decades past history was repeating itself again, far too many.
Did not heed the warning. Now. In this snippet here, she’s tidying up this book as Covid 19 is beginning and COVID 19 is causing you to be triggered about what was going on back in 1992. Right? So, and then while I’m reading this, I’m having all these poses, flashbacks, and I’m just, you know, you know, I’m right there with you in New York back in the dance hall scene and in pose it was only three seasons, but my God, it felt like years of, you know, so many funerals, so many people died, you know, watching poses.
If you haven’t seen pose people, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.
Martina: Forget on it.
De’Vannon: So, yes. And, and Martina is in New York right now. That’s where she lives. And so all of this is just [00:09:00] really coming together for me right now in a super emotional way. So, so tell us about how you felt when you got H I V and what was going on, and then how did C O V I D trigger this for you?
Martina: So when I found out that I had H I V. , I felt like my life had just been erased. And I remember I was, I got the news on the phone, which is not how you’re supposed to get it. You’re supposed to get it from an intellectual person in real life. But I got the news on the phone and I was standing in a kitchen and I just stared at a cabinet and it’s like a white kitchen cabinet.
And I, I felt like that was my life. It was just a blank slate. And not necessarily in a good way, but that everything I had ever done. , it just didn’t matter anymore cuz I had this new thing that I was gonna have to deal with. I had never seen another woman with H I v I probably had, but I didn’t register that I had.
And [00:10:00] despite living in San Francisco, which in the eighties and nineties was, you know, really hard hit by H I V and AIDS pandemic, I just still felt very, very alone. I knew plenty of people with H I V, but not another woman. But before all of that happened in 1992 I actually lived on Castro Street in the mid eighties.
Yeah. And yeah, Castro Street. If you don’t know, San Francisco is the hub of the most fabulous gay neighborhood, perhaps on the planet, I don’t know. But certainly in San Francisco. And I lived there at the, really, at the height of the AIDS crisis, and there were. sirens all the time and ambulances going by and funerals, and it was just a constant state of sort of survival and grief.
And yet in the midst of this extraordinary community who was always like, we’re gonna be better than this. We’re gonna be bigger than this. We’re gonna, we’re gonna still be fabulous and [00:11:00]wonderful. And when. going through the beginning of Covid. I live in Brooklyn, in New York City, which was the epicenter for this pandemic.
And so it was similar in a sense that there was just a constant stream of ambulances going by and people were dying. And I’m, I’m a teacher now and my students were telling me these horror stories of one student’s mom died and the family didn’t even know where her body was. For like weeks and I mean, just trauma that is unbearable for anybody.
And it was on such a scale that I was really triggered and I, I mean, nobody knew what to anticipate as we went into the covid epidemic, but our pandemic, I should say. But I, I was really triggered and I found myself like back on Castro Street. Seeing [00:12:00] apartments for rent, knowing that probably the person inside who had lived there before died, you know, or yard sales.
There were yard sales all the time, which it was just, it was so much to handle, to know that there was so much death going on around you. And then to go through this again was was overwhelming to say the slightest least
De’Vannon: bit. Two pandemics in a lifetime. . Yeah. You know, when, when Covid came out, you know, they were saying like, you know, we hadn’t seen anything like this since, I think 19 you know, the early 19 hundreds when there was a Spanish flu?
I believe it was right, but. But if, but if truth be told for people dealing with H I V we have seen it before .
Martina: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. No, we’ve lived through it and, and I’m in touch with a lot of long-term survivors of H I V and we all were just like, Ugh, this feels too real. Too [00:13:00] close. Too much. Yeah.
De’Vannon: And so, I hear you when you say that you found out over the phone, that is so not the way to do it. When I found out they didn’t even bother to call, they left the voicemail. Oh my gosh. I re, I retrieve my positive diagnosis from a voicemail and so , so it, it is just, and this was only 10 years ago, so it’s sad to see that healthcare and the way they deal with H I V has not evolved, you know?
Yeah. Back in those days telling people over the phone, in my case, leaving a voice. You know, it makes me think that some doctors who deal with H I V patients just don’t respect us, you know? And just don’t consider us be human enough to treat with common dignity and decency. . Yeah,
Martina: I agreed.
De’Vannon: Totally agree.
HIV people, you did it to yourself. It’s all your fault. So you, you deserve what happened to you. So we’ll just drop the shit on the, we’ll just call you and whatever.
Martina: Yeah. . Yeah. No, agree. [00:14:00] Agree. I don’t understand why we haven’t gotten past .
De’Vannon: Yeah. Stigma. Now, when you found out, you said you, you stared at the, at the furniture, you know, and you felt like your life, everything was at that point, didn’t matter.
They said that they gave you five years to live. Mm-hmm. . How did it feel to hear a doctor try to, and clearly we’re far past five years now, , you know, thank God for that. Yeah. And you, but how did it feel to have someone tell you, look, you got, what is it, 60 months left f ? Do with it what you will , you know?
Martina: Yeah. I never thought of it in terms of months. It, it just felt, again, it, it, it definitely felt dismissive. I mean, in, in retrospect, I look back and I think, okay, this doctor was also navigating this territory and probably didn’t know what to [00:15:00] say, and that was his best assessment. Right. But at the time, I, you know, I was 28 years old.
I felt like, that’s it, you know, my life is over. And and he kept telling me to relax and to, you know, don’t stress , just, you know, be as calm as you can. Don’t stress about things because stress is bad for you. So relax and try and get lots of rest. . It’s like, fuck you. You know, you just told me I’ve got five years to live.
I’m gonna maybe make it to 33 if I’m lucky. Right. And I’m not Jesus, so I don’t want that end, you know? Right. I don’t wanna go down that path. So I yeah, I just felt like my life was over and. because there was no treatment yet that didn’t come till like 1996. I think that is what launched me into becoming an activist, cuz I felt like, you know, if I am gonna die, at least I can try and make something out of this [00:16:00] to help somebody else, or at least make myself feel better about myself, , or, I don’t know make me feel like I had a purpose.
and so I didn’t really focus on myself as much as I think maybe I should have, but it was sort of what I needed to do. I just needed to stay in my mind, stay one step ahead of the virus cuz there was no other option at that point.
De’Vannon: I think you did better than me. I was too self-absorbed and too concerned about me.
I thought I was just gonna like die in a few months cuz I didn’t have, they didn’t tell me I had five months. They didn’t tell me anything after. Forgot the voicemail. I never talked to anybody and I just went down this whole bad spiral. The only person I knew who had H I V died at like 24 ish, and I just saw him triple up into like this husk of a person covered with boils and sores.
Mm-hmm. . And I thought, okay, well, you know, that’s where it’s headed. And so [00:17:00] but hearing you speak. You know, tells me what I should have done. You know, I should have taken the microscope off of me and had I focused on trying to heal other people than I would’ve gotten healed myself, you know? Which is how I usually would deal with, cuz I had a strong history of volunteerism, but I was not volunteering during this time because I had gotten kicked out of church.
For not being straight. And so I had stopped all of my philanthropy and public service work, so I wasn’t in that vein of operating like I usually would have been. Mm-hmm. . So I didn’t even think about that. And so, So people, when we get sick, if anybody out there contracts, h i v, here you have it, , don’t find a way to help somebody else.
That way you don’t get o overly self-absorbed with your own nightmarish fantasies about what you think are going to happen. I like to talk about this because sometimes people. Get H I v and people are [00:18:00] like, oh, there’s medicine for it now you can just fix it. That that doesn’t take away the mental mind fuck of being invaded by something that you can’t get rid of and that, you know, desires to take your life.
It doesn’t matter how far technology has come, the mental health aspect of it is still is real today as it was back in the Castro days.
Martina: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. No, I think that that is it’s so important to, to highlight because people. , it’s really not that big a deal now. You know, it’s, it’s so what?
You take a pill every day and if you’re probably fine, you’ll probably have a regular lifespan. But that is so minimizing the reality, and it’s just kind of bullshit because yes, there’s medication and thank God it exists. And we’re very lucky compared to so many people who are not here to even talk about this now.
but the truth is you still have your body fighting this thing constantly. Research is showing that [00:19:00] for long-term survivors, it ages your body just because you’ve been fighting it for so long. So like in theory, I’m 12 years older physiologically than my actual age, and so I. 70 . So I’m now magically older than my siblings, which is kind of weird But then as you say, like all of the, the social dynamics and the mental health and the, you know, psychological, it’s like you just still don’t know. And the thing is, we still don’t know, you know, we know that the medications are working so far so good, but we’re the. Sort of cohort of people being studied to see if this medication actually works.
I don’t know, you know, maybe in another 10 years you’re gonna be like, oops, it’s as good as it gets. And that’s, you know, it stopped working. Now, I don’t know. And I don’t know, like with Covid, you know, this is something I think about a lot was did I get c o because I have h I [00:20:00] V and I was more vulner. or when I got covid, did I not have a worse case because I’m also taking medication for H I V, which is not the same medication, but sort of in a similar family of fighting viruses.
I don’t know. You know? And it is a constant like just. every day. Not every day. Maybe after 31 years of living with H I V I don’t think about it necessarily every single day, but I do think about it regularly, like, is something else going to go wrong tomorrow because I have H I V, you know, do I really have a full life to look forward to?
Am I gonna live to 80 or 90? And of course, nobody knows how long they’re gonna live, but I really, nobody knows how much h I V is actually still doing damage to. despite having the medications. Mm-hmm. like it’s keeping us alive, but is it really you know, are we, are we actually still at a hundred percent?
Like everybody likes to [00:21:00] pretend that you take the pill and you’re good to go. You know? There’s so much more to it, as you say. Yeah.
De’Vannon: There’s so much more to it and there’s so many different medicines because everybody’s body. reacts differently to different mm-hmm. things. No Doctor gives you a guarantee that medicine is going to work.
They always have that same disclaimer, like, we’re gonna try this. Hopefully it works. If this doesn’t work, then we’ll switch you to a different medicine. You hope and pray that your body doesn’t grow a tolerance to whatever medicine that you are. Mm-hmm. . And you hope and pray that you don’t get exposed to a different strand of it that could cause the virus within you to mutate, so mm-hmm.
it’s not just like a home free thing. It still has to, it still is a conscious. Yeah. I wanna give a word of caution too when people, you know, if you should happen to get H I V or hepatitis, I also, you know, have a history of Hepatitis B as well, you know, to be careful that you don’t let it turn into anger.
Mm-hmm. , when I was a teenager, this guy that I was. Dating, you know, he was like the same person who died of H I V or AIDS [00:22:00] was the same one. He was running around trying to intentionally give it to people. Mm. Because what happened with him is he got it and like me, I thought I was just gonna die. And I blamed myself.
He got mad and he went out and tried to kill as many people as he could, you know, so, So just be careful, you know, your emotions that I like, we, we, Martina and I cannot overstate the emotional implications, you know, that can happen to people. Mm-hmm. . Now the last snippet that I have that I wanted to read talks about Different perspective on it.
For, for instance, this is the panglossian outlook as you describe it in your book in the panglossian is just a very fabulous word that doesn’t speak of mermaids or unicorns or the never ending story like you might think. It just means like a, a super optimistic person. . So , [00:23:00] so, so So the snippet reads, people living with the virus sometimes, say H I V, is a gift because it requires a long, hard look at yourself and your life.
You take account of where you stand, it forces you to contemplate your mortality. Perhaps still, I’ve swapped my gift for a nice pair of shoes and so. after I settled the fuck down and realized I wasn’t going to die, now we’re talking what, four felonies and three trips to jail later. Because I really went off the deep end.
I realized, you know, I gotta get healthy now. I have to, like, I started to like eat better, or at least think about it, you know? Mm-hmm. ways. And so for me it did turn into a gift. After I got my head back on straight . It was so funny to read. You say, you know, I’ll take the pair of shoes.[00:24:00]
did you find any benefits? I mean,
Martina: you know, I, I, I always say that I would clearly, I would like, I’m sure everybody would like to have had a life without h I v. I would like to have tried that one out, but I would also be a liar if I said I didn’t have some benefits because, because of the fact that I had h I v and it was just, you know, sort of the timing and my particular set of skills in life and all of these things converged and I ended up having a career for more than 20 years with the United Nations, which I don’t think I would ever have been able to even fantasize about.
You know, it just, it all unfolded because I had H I V and through that, Traveled the world. I have met extraordinary people from all walks of life in all kinds of places, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I have been so [00:25:00] blessed to, to be able to go places and like, be in the company of the people who actually live there, you know, not get on a, a tour and ride around in a bus and wave at the, at the locals.
You know, I actually got to be with the people who live in all of these places and. a little bit understand what they were going through and know that like their journey with H I V was different for certain reasons. or despite having living, being living in different totally different countries, we actually have a lot of things in common, you know, that sort of stuff that you realize.
There’s so many things that connect us as human beings. And when you’re dealing with something as traumatic and big as h I v, a lot of those things they become super important and it no longer matters. You know, where you’re from, what language you speak, what you look like, any of that. It’s just like this common shared life experience and.
to have had so many of those experiences is just, I feel like I am the [00:26:00] richest person on the planet in terms of life experience. Not quite as rich in terms of money, but that’s okay. . And so things like that. I definitely got a lot of great, you know, not pairs of shoes, but a lot of great other gifts,
De’Vannon: hey, perspective is everything. A person can have so much in front of them and focus on a few things that they don’t have and forfeit all the good stuff that they do have. Yeah. And then, you know, it’s all about perspective. Millionaires kill themselves, you know? Yeah. It’s not about money, you know, it’s about not getting tricked into over focusing on the, on the, what you don’t have, and being happy for what you do have.
Agree. Yeah. Now before we dive deeper into the United Nations, the last question that I had about your more like personal life was do you ever think about like, where you got h i v from, you know, how you contracted it, who gave it to you, or [00:27:00] you got it from a needle? Like, do you ever think about that or do you have closure on that?
Martina: Excellent question. I. Sort of forced closure on it. The truth is, I don’t know a hundred percent where I got H I v. I am certain it was from a sexual encounter, unprotected sex. Only cuz I never did any drugs that involve needles cuz I’m afraid of needles. And we’ll leave it at that. Not that I didn’t try on plenty of other stuff, , , but that was not my
That was not my, my method of choice, party
De’Vannon: on, party on, but .
Martina: But none of none of those things would’ve put me at risk for h I V except for maybe not being in my best mental frame of reference to make good choices. But I don’t know for sure. I have a pretty good idea of where and when I was exposed, and that’s [00:28:00] as much as I’ll ever know.
And I, you know, I think one of my friends told me a story once, she’s from Uganda, and she said that when a snake gets into your house, the first thing you think about is not, gosh, how did the snake get in the house? . Hmm. Let’s ponder that. No, what you think about is how do I get that snake out of my house and get it away as far away as possible, so it’s not gonna come back.
Right. You’re not thinking about like, how does it get in? That’s sort of a, a luxury to think about in a way when you have to fight, you know, the virus is very much a real live living thing in your body. That’s the thing that’s more important to worry about. At least for me that has held true that I sort of, I’ve pondered it and probably more at the beginning, but as time has passed, like it doesn’t matter.
I have it. I gotta deal with it and move forward. [00:29:00]
De’Vannon: Oh, to move forward. Some days it’s easier. Some days it almost seems impossible, but move forward, we must move forward, we shall.
No. I have one more question before we move on to the un. Okay. In your book, I was reading, and you’re very, very transparent about how you, while you didn’t judge like the gay men or anything like that in according to your head knowledge, you really didn’t think as being like a, a straight woman, that it was something that you were at risk for, you thought.
I believe in your book, you said you thought you were like immune to it or like it could not impact you. So what do you have to say to people to this day who might still be laboring under the delusion that it’s, you know, a disease for those people over there? Or , you know?
Martina: Yeah. Well I think I mean, we can take a lesson from Covid.
A virus does not care who you are, what you look like, or you [00:30:00] know how you get it. They just want you to get it and live in your body and mess things up. So anybody can get H I V. It’s has nothing to do with who you are. If you’re a good person, a bad person, or you’re smelly or you have green eyes or left-handed.
It has nothing to do with any of that stuff. It is a virus and anybody can get it, and I think that in this country, . I mean, certainly in 2023 we barely hear about H I V at all anymore. It’s my perception. And that’s even as somebody who’s in the world of H I V right? It’s just, it’s not like out there in the public discourse like it used to be.
And I think that that’s like on one hand you don’t want to alarm people unnecessarily. Blah, blah, blah. But at the same time, I don’t think that we’re giving people an accurate reflection of the fact that it could be any, anybody. You know, it’s a [00:31:00] virus. Anybody can contract it given the correct circumstances.
And globally, more than half of the people living with H I V are women. . And I think most people don’t know that either. There is a perception to this day that it is just a gay man’s disease, which is complete nonsense. It is a human being’s disease, and I think that’s a really important thing. And again, if we can learn anything from Covid, it is that viruses do not discriminate and neither should we.
De’Vannon: No, we absolutely should not. And. . So, so let’s shift gears to the, to the UN here. So you were the first openly H I V positive person you worked for UN AIDS in 1996. Mm-hmm. . How does that feel?
Martina: It feels like, and, and it’s sort of what prompted me to write the book is that I feel like I [00:32:00] own this little teeny, tiny piece of the history of the AIDS pandemic.
And if I didn’t tell the story, nobody would or could, cuz it’s my story. I look back at it now as an extraordinary sort of privilege to have had that, that position at the time. It felt like a nightmare cause I, you know, I was hired to have my job. NGO liaison. So I was the person who linking all of the nonprofits around the world working on h i v to our program, which is a huge job all by itself.
But what I felt my job was, was to be sort of the voice of reason in-house and call everybody to task on the work and say, you’re not considering the needs of people living with H I v. You’re just thinking of this as a scientist, or you’re thinking of this as. Communication specialist, but you’re not considering What are our needs in our job at U N A S is to serve people with h i v first and foremost.
And so I was sort of like the in-house [00:33:00] act up yelling and screaming all the time. And it was a, it was a crazy job. It was so hard. And I put a lot of that pressure on myself, but it was also kind of weird because as the first person, , I felt like some of my community thought that I had sort of sold out and gone to the, to the UN more as a self-serving, you know, this is a great job and it was.
It was a great job. Had a nice salary. I moved to Switzerland. You know, all of these extraordinary things happened, but I was sort of alienated from my community in a way cuz I was the only person there. And it took a while to sort. Earn their trust again, that I was doing something that was actually helpful to them because I think they were also watching me seeing like, okay, is she actually gonna be there and do what she’s supposed to do and stand up for all of us?
Or is she just gonna sort of settle in and go, cool, [00:34:00] I like this big salary, I’m just gonna float coast, not really do the job that I could be doing. So it was, it was really. , it was a lot to take on. And this is just four years after I’d found out I had H I V and I hadn’t really processed it all internally like I probably should have.
But again, I just sort of like launched myself into space to take on this huge job. And it was a lot. But again, I look back at it now all these years later and I just feel like I was really lucky and. above all, hope that I did the right stuff and made sure that in those early days of unaids, which very much changed the way the UN responded to the pandemic, that I helped to keep them honest a little bit.
De’Vannon: you feel like any of the policies you created [00:35:00] impacted not just the organization within the United Nations? Do you think any of those, any of your work filtered down? are most, you know, local communities.
Martina: I, I do. And I would say not so much the work at unaids, but the next sort of big job that I had with the UN was a few, few years later with UNICEF and I was the h I V in the workplace coordinator.
I don’t know what my title was, but that was my job, was to make sure that UNICEF had an h i v in the workplace program for all of the countries where we work. and that means implementing programming so that all of the personnel who work in any given office were getting education around H I V. That ultimately morphed into a UN system-wide program.
So the entire UN system in, you know, 160 countries where we work, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of [00:36:00] people ultimately were exposed to those trainings because it was a mandatory program. and that I know made a difference because the way we were approaching it was, you know, you have to go through this training and maybe you feel like you don’t need this training because you’re, you don’t perceive you have any risk of getting H I V, but we wanna make sure that you know how to educate the other people in your life and your kids and grandkids and so on and so forth.
So it trickled down in that way, into communities. . Which was amazing. I also know that it helped in the sense that our program staff, like for example, somebody who worked in the accounting office in one country, she was afraid to have people who were hired to work for us come to her office to collect their checks cuz she was just didn’t want people with h I V in her office cuz she just mm-hmm.
wasn’t, you know, educated. [00:37:00] Right. . And so it was holding up program work and once we started doing the training, she’s like, oh, okay, now I realize I have nothing to worry about. I am not at risk. They can come to my office. They’re just picking up a check. It is not a big deal. It allowed the work to move forward and for her to be more comfortable and in turn other people in the office to be more comfortable.
And you know, it’s, it sort of sounds like a little tiny nitpicky example, but it actually ended up making a big difference for the programming in that. and it also, we were finally sort of modeling what we were supposed to do as a un. And so we were able to influence governments and local businesses and say, look, we have an H I V in the workplace program.
You should too. Can we help you set one up? . And so I know that, you know, it clearly hasn’t fixed everything by any means, but it made a difference, at least a small difference in lasting ways. And that program is like officially [00:38:00] doesn’t have a team dedicated to it anymore cuz it’s been going for so long.
But I know that the work is still happening and country offices are still doing trainings and making sure that we have. Respect also for our own personnel living with H I V, and it’s really changed the whole way that the UN approaches staff wellbeing. It made it easier for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer people to be out in the office, which is a huge thing.
Maybe they couldn’t be in their own lives, but at least in the family of the United Nation system, it’s better than it was. It’s still not perfect. , but all of that work like made the UN a better employee, in my opinion.
De’Vannon: I think I would concur with your opinion because it sounds like your work, like you said, they don’t have dedicated teams, but it’s been around for so long.
It’s some [00:39:00] it’s, it almost sounds like it’s been ingrained into the subconscious culture of. In. So is it its own living organism? I mean, there’s nothing more you could ask for. I mean, what an honor and a compliment .
Martina: Yeah, yeah. No, no, absolutely. And it, it’s, I’m really, really proud of that work. . I feel like I was so lucky to be a part of the team that did the work.
And again, I was like one of the people holding everybody accountable and saying, you know, we need to have the right priorities. And it was really hard to do because the UN is such a big bureaucracy, but we did it and it’s, as you say, it’s, it’s ingrained into the culture now and
De’Vannon: Oh, beautiful. And I wanna give a shout out to unicef, who you mentioned, and they do great work for kids.
Yeah. Globally. That is, that’s my favorite nonprofit of all the nonprofits and all the nine realms [00:40:00] because Cause I just, I just fucking love children. And they’re just so like, , it’s just simple to talk to a kid. Mm-hmm. , you know, when I, when I get tired of grown up bullshit and faking this, and they feel like they have to do this, I go talk to one of two people, either homeless people or a child, because mm-hmm.
they don’t have a, they’re, they have no motivation to be anything other than what they are. And I used homeless before, and so that’s where I got this, this, this from, you know, extended. , you know, conversation with homeless people, which I used to talk to ’em before became homeless. But those two, I just go fucking find me a, a fucking seven year old to talk to, just to get some common damn sins from them.
De’Vannon: Absolutely. And so [00:41:00] did you ever come across any like opposition that you, when you were trying to. two cuz really what you were trying to push was love and open-mindedness to an organization that’s already supposed to stand for that. And we all know it doesn’t matter what church somebody goes to run to or what.
Nonprofit that has a big ideal that it stands for. Those bitches are there at work because they’re trying to get paid primarily. Mm-hmm. completely different. If you’ve been somebody who has gone through something that your organization services, but your main reason is to get paid, people go to church to save their own souls, they’re not going there to help you.
They’re gonna help themselves. Mm-hmm. . And so, so when, so when they’re confronted, with somebody who has H I V or somebody who is the polar opposite of them. Then there’s that gut check moment. Okay, so you work for the un, you are all about hu you know, human service, you know, helping people. Or you go to your church or whatever, supposed to be about the same thing.
Now will you close the door in their face? You [00:42:00] don’t wanna give them a check, you know, so you, so you know the. You know what your company stands for. You know, you recited the creeds and the core values, but when it came down to it, you couldn’t deliver . So it’s all great when it’s an idea, but when you actually have someone in need standing in front of you, Then what the hell do you do?
This person you had to help them do what they signed up to do. . Mm-hmm. . That’s very, very big of you. . Cause you, you could have gone in there and cussed the bitch out, you know, and been like, what the hell is your problem? But you took the high road and you showed you shared love. I just wanted to point that out, that that’s, this is a really, , you know, a stretch for you to have to do this.
F E U N, of all places .
Martina: So, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I I tried really [00:43:00] hard to always come at it with love and understanding that, you know, everybody, not everybody knows all the stuff that we know about H I V. . And if you’re hired as an accountant, that is, you don’t have a background in public health. You know, why would you know all of this stuff?
Right? So I was sort of trying to be compassionate that everybody’s learning this information at some point for the first time, and maybe I’m the person teaching them for the first time. But I can also tell you , had my moments . I, on my, on my very last training that I did for UNICEF before I, I left I was doing this workshop and it was in the middle.
which is a tricky region to talk about anything around sex to start with. And it was specifically, we were, we had a people from countries that were in conflict. So these [00:44:00] people already are like, I have so much to think about. H I V in the workplace is really the last thing on my mind. So they were like, maybe okay to be there.
They’re not really against it, but at the same time they’re like, why is, why do I have to do this? and then one woman. I said, we’re gonna talk about how we’re gonna get condoms in your offices, because that was one of the mandatory principles of our workplace program is that even if you have ’em in a basket in the kitchen, Where it’s in a closet next to the, you know, to the sugar packets, and only the staff knows that they’re there.
They have to be somewhere, because if we don’t make them available, then staff who are afraid to go to the store and buy them themselves, or they can’t, for whatever reason, you know, we make sure that at least they’re available and hopeful. breaking down the stigma associated with condoms, right? So I had one woman in this one training who basically said, we can’t do that because it just promotes immoral [00:45:00] behavior of it, it increases the immoral behavior of bad people, basically, is what she said.
I was just like, woo.
I lost it and it was my last training and I had told them at the beginning that this would be my last training and I was leaving UNICEF to go on and do other things. And at that moment I took off my glasses and I said, I didn’t tell you why. , I’m leaving unicef. But part of why is cuz I can’t listen to people like you anymore.
And everybody else in the room was just like, oh, no, she didn’t. No, she didn’t. Oh my God. and I, yeah. I was just like, oh Lord, what did I just do? But at the end of the day, , the other people in the room were like, thank you so much, because she is a pain in a neck and she’s always fighting us on this condom issue.
And you [00:46:00] have the luxury that at the end of the week you get on a plane and you leave. , you don’t have to work with her anymore, but you’ve said to her what? We can’t. And so apparently the fact that I kind of blew up on this woman ultimately was helpful. But I also, you know, I was just like, I can’t, I can’t make up these stories anymore.
I can’t pretend to be nice to you when you are being ridiculous. It’s like, it’s not up to you. You, we have to do this period, end of. Figure it out. And she eventually, she sort of said, okay, I morally I can’t contribute to this, but I will not fight it, and I will put my energy into other parts of the work and let other people focus on that part because I, I’m not comfortable with it.
And I’m like, , okay. There’s a team in every office if you’re not gonna take on that part, but you will not block it. I can live with that. And I had that, that was probably the worst one. But I’ve had, had a lot of other [00:47:00] moments where there was another guy in Venezuela who was basically blaming the H I v rates In Columbia, or no, on in ve I can’t remember which direction.
But in any case, he’s, he was, I guess he was from Venezuela working in Colombia, and he was blaming the rates of H I V in Venezuela, on Colombians being bad, dirty people. And I also called him out and I was like, HKI, use me . And I yelled at him in a meeting and he was mortified. And I, I guess the next day he said, you know, that woman from u n a, she’s short, but she’s mean.
And I felt like, good, I did my job . You know, he heard me and he, he heard me. That’s what mattered. People
De’Vannon: like them. Both of them are stupid bitches, you know? It just is what it is. And they’re also. , they carry the spirit of a [00:48:00] bully. Yeah. You know, who are just, they’re consumed with their own point of view and as far as they’re concerned, if you don’t see any given thing like them, then you are wrong.
And that, and that’s just the end of it for them. And they keep pushing people around and pushing people around till someone does like you. And I think our homegirl miss Elektra from Pose would. Quite impressed with the read, cuz you basically read them for Phil and nobody has ever read anybody quite like a lecture, Vo and so , you know, and they keep, they keep badgering and abusing people until somebody slaps them across the fucking face, metaphorically speaking, you know, like you did, you know, gonna.
and evolve are they’re gonna just lean more into it. Yeah. That you can’t do. Yeah. But Godammit, sometimes shit needs to be said. This is why I had to leave the workplaces. I can’t deal with dumb bitches like that and not say something. I’m like, oh, hell no. Maybe it’s my P T S D or [00:49:00]whatever. But, you know, veterans, us veterans with ptsd, T S D, we not gonna take no shit off of you.
You like bet you said what? Oh, no, no, no. . Like . Yeah.
Martina: No, absolutely. Absolutely. And, and you know, at the end of the day, if we don’t stand up and say something, you’re doing a disservice to other people. You know? I think it is, like, for me, I felt like it, it is my duty. I am in a position where I can talk back to this person.
because of my, you know, sort of my role in the system. The other people in this room cannot, cuz they’re not in the same position. And if I don’t, then I have let them all down.
De’Vannon: Right. And so I think you did well. So, so, so y’all, her book is like, like you mentioned earlier, you know, you got to live. , you know, with these people we’re talking about cultural infusion, you know, reading through it is kind of like a very detailed travel guide.
You know, you mentioned like your Ugandan friend. I, I [00:50:00] appreciated the story you had in there. About your time. It’s like you’re asleep and you’re thinking a hut, and they come in there, they wake you up to go look at the stars and you gotta shake your shoe out to be sure no scorpions or whatever. You gotta put your shoes on, you gotta step on any snakes.
You know, it’s like, it’s like going from, you know, country to country and place to place, but deeper. It’s not just look at all the pretty, but this is what’s like, what’s really going on. I did a missions trip to The Bahamas years ago. . And what struck me was that, you know, all the brochures and everything, crystal, Clearwater beaches and everything, but when we got back there into the schools where these people live and everything, abject, poverty, you know?
Mm-hmm. never spoken of, you know, and all the brochures and everything like that. And I felt, I like lied to and just like, like I wasn’t giving the whole truth. And like those people hadn’t been marginalized cuz they’re not talked about. Mm-hmm. . And so what I love about your book is that you give. , you know, the realness, you know, in all of these different places.
So it’s a, [00:51:00] so who, who, who is your target audience for, for your book and what do you hope people gain from it?
Martina: This is a million dollar question. I. . I’m still trying to figure this out because like my initial thought was obviously people who work in the UN will find it interesting cuz they’ve had a similar experience.
I think people with H I V will find it interesting because they have had a similar experience. Mm-hmm. . Beyond that, I feel like it’s the target AR audience is probably just people who care about the world. which I would love to think was everybody, but is not actually everybody , but people who care about the world, who are curious how the UN works who have survived some other traumatic thing.
It doesn’t have to be h I V but dealt with another life-threatening disease or, you know, just some other traumatic event where you feel like in that moment you’re not gonna get through it, but in the end you are.[00:52:00]
and I guess what I really hope people take away from it, to me the most important thing is that everybody knows that they can do something to make the world better, even if it is just smiling to somebody or holding the door for somebody that you don’t have to hold the door for or being kind to, you know, the person who looks like they’re having a really shitty day and saying, can I help you?
Do you need something, you know? Little tiny acts of kindness all add up. And if we all did more of them, then I think the world would be a better place. But but also that, you know, the little things matter, but that don’t be afraid to take on bigger things too, that we can all make a difference in the world.
I really, truly believe that.
De’Vannon: I concur and I think like one of the opening quotes in your, in your book was from, [00:53:00] I wanna say maybe Gandhi. And it was like if you don’t, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping, you know, next to a mosquito. Yeah. That’s sad. Lama Lama. Sorry. Yeah.
Yeah. So. And so, so I thought that that was very interesting. Y’all, her book, you know, the woman’s been through a lot. You know, the, there’s an abusive marriage, there’s a fostering of a believe a teenager, you know, there’s a lot more than just H I V and AIDS and traveling. It’s a very, very transparent read that I feel like can touch you on many different levels.
You know, whoever may be listening. So then the last two questions that we have. Mm-hmm. , turn the floor over to you for your last words. We’re gonna talk about. Is there any sort of specific h I V AIDS implications just specific to women that you might like to talk about?
Martina: Oh, that’s a good question. So I think for women the whole issue around reproductive [00:54:00] health is a huge one that, you know, for, for many women, younger women, they wanna have children and to know.
In 2023. That is something that women can do safely if they’re in good care and they’re very affordable treatments to, to ensure that the baby is not born with h I v. They work and in North America, Western Europe, almost no babies are born with H I V anymore. So that is really a positive thing. And obviously parenthood involves two people generally, but.
For the woman carrying the child. That’s a really important thing to know. I think that h I v probably impacts women throughout our lives, you know, as we go through menopause and other things as well. But there’s not as much research as we’d like on all of that. But I think. Probably the most important thing for women is to think about [00:55:00] the reproductive health issues and just to make sure that they don’t let their doctors say, well, this works in men.
It’s fine for you. Make sure that you learn as much as you can, and don’t hesitate to call ’em out on it and say, but are you certain, have there been research studies involving women or has this only been tested on men? Prove to me that this is gonna work for me in a smaller body. If, like in my case, I’m, I’m five four, I’m a smaller person than a six foot man, right?
So I need to have the empowerment to know that it’s okay to ask my doctor, are you sure this is also going to work for me in the same way and prove it, you know, sort of like, don’t just say yes, show me the data, sort of thing. I think that’s really important. And I think also that the stigma is different in the sense that people still don’t understand that women get H I V.
And so there’s a lot of like slut [00:56:00] shaming associated with the diagnosis where people assume if you’ve got h I v, you must be some sort of awful, terrible sexual being and how dare you and it’s your fault. And I suspect that happens with everybody that gets H I V, but I know that it happens with women in a, in a very specific kind of way.
And and just know if that happens, if you get H I V and you’re a woman, that that’s not true. You are a human being. It’s a virus. and don’t, don’t believe the stories that people tell you about yourself. Believe your own story.
De’Vannon: Like, like, Lord, help me like, like Mama RuPaul says, unless they pay in your bills, pay them bitches. No mind. Yeah. Unless they pay in your bills. Pay them bitches. No mind. Cause people always got a fucking opinion about every goddamn thing besides themselves. . And then, so then the last thing, world AIDS Day stood out to me, my research to [00:57:00] you of you, this, this, this, this has been the case since December 1st, 1988.
And so is there anything you’d like to say about World AIDS Day and what that means to you? Ooh
Martina: You know, it’s kind of like. At this point, it’s I think it is a day that we kind of do lip service to the pandemic. And while I think it’s great that people do events on World AID’S Day to focus our attention, make sure that it is being talked about in our communities I think people need to remember that there are the other.
What, 364 days of the year that we’re all still living with H I v. And you know, I thought about this yesterday with, with Valentine’s Day. I was explaining to somebody who’s from another country about Valentine’s Day here, and I said, you know, it’s, it’s sort of a cute. cheesy holiday and we like heart-shaped candy if we like candy.
But it’s also complete nonsense because [00:58:00] if you love somebody, you don’t have to wait till February 14th to tell them that. Right. . It should be a daily thing. And I think the same for World AIDS Day that I I have a real. Love hate relationship with the day. Like part of me wants to support activities and events.
Part of me hates the day and wants to just, you know, skip it and talk again on December 2nd cuz I don’t wanna think about it cuz it’s not a, it’s not a joyful day. It is it’s a day of a somber remembrance to me. You know, it’s remembering all the people who aren’t here to celebrate it or not to observe it.
I should say, not celebrate, but that’s my feeling on world eight’s day. Yeah,
De’Vannon: I can imagine that it would be triggering, excuse me, like triggering as hell. So, So everyone make up your own damn mind about World Aids Day? I’m kind of over like pretty much every holiday at this point. Yeah. Cause [00:59:00] they’re either fake or overly commercialized or whatever the hell the case may be.
So I’m just like, just fuck it all. And so in terms of holidays, but still show love to people on every day. Exactly. Whether it’s Christmas or you know, and, and give a damn about Jesus. Even if it’s not Easter . Yeah. Who the fuck exactly. Fucking bunnies. I don’t want to get started on that. . It is almost Easter.
And so, so thank you so much for coming on the show. Any last words that you have? Wait a minute, y’all. Her website is martina clark.com. I’m gonna put all this in the show. The book again, is My Unexpected Life at an international memoir of two Pandemics, h i v, and Covid. 19. She’s on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, you name it, she’s there.
All of this will go in the show notes as always. So, Thank you for being such an incredible [01:00:00]guest. If there’s any last words you’d like to say to the world, say it and then you’ll close us out with that.
Martina: Oh my goodness. No pressure. I would just say thank you and, and again, thank you for all that you’re doing, for putting good stuff out into the world.
I really appreciate you and for the listeners, you know, you can be one of those people who puts good stuff out into the world. So do it. Thank you so much.
De’Vannon: Thank you all so much for taking time to listen to the Sex Drugs and Jesus podcast. It really means everything to me. Look, if you love the show, you can find more information and resources at SexDrugsAndJesus.com or wherever you listen to your podcast. Feel free to reach out to me directly at DeVannon@SexDrugsAndJesus.com and on Twitter and Facebook as well.
My name is De’Vannon, and it’s been wonderful being your [01:01:00] host today. And just remember that everything is gonna be all right.