“They don’t see the storm — they only see the rainbow,” says Dr. Joyce Turner Keller. “People don’t see me as someone who has challenges. There are so many challenges that come with [living with] HIV, and often times people don’t get the chance to acknowledge that.”
Because of that, Keller, 69, created “Straight Talk at the Kitchen Table,” a teaching tool of conversations in a safe space where people living with HIV can find support. Nationally, black women account for 66 percent of new cases of HIV among women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Black women are at much higher risk of HIV due to such factors as lack of access to healthcare, poverty, and the intersection of racism and sexism. Another risk factor often forgotten is sexual assault.
Keller, from Baton Rouge, La., is very open with her story. She has been living with HIV as a result of a 2011 rape, but chooses not to dwell on the trauma. “I’m grateful for knowing my status, which allowed me to get into treatment. I’m grateful that a platform has been carved out of everything I’ve been through.”
Keller founded Aspirations, a nonprofit organization serving the needs of those affected by HIV because “people are always dealing with challenges — mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
Keller also encourages women, regardless of status, to find their voices. “Write, draw, sing, whatever! And if that isn’t you, teach — work with the less fortunate, with youth. People underestimate how much strength lies in being someone others can lean on. And for those living with HIV, it’s okay to feel lost… at first. But HIV is not the end. The process is not overnight, but you will rise.”
Keller certainly found her own voice, and created The Shackle Series, a collection of plays and artwork that bring education, entertainment, and awareness. With titles like “No, No, Ain’t No AIDS in My Church” and “He Loved Me in the Dark, Denied Me in the Daylight,” she addresses a spectrum of issues that impact black communities — particularly faith, and stigma around HIV, depression, and the LGBTQ experience. “I’m not asking anyone to change their religion, but people [of faith] should be less judgmental and more empathetic. Suicide and acts of violence are rampant, and it is compassion that changes lives.”
Keller’s work in HIV has been honored by President Barack Obama and recognized by members of Congress, Louisiana governors Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal, and Baton Rouge’s mayor. She was featured in Poz magazine’s “35 Ones to Watch.” Being chosen as one of Plus magazine’s most amazing people of the year, she says, “encourages me to keep speaking out, to never give up, to know my work and efforts are not in vain. I am empowered knowing my voice counts!”
But Keller sites her greatest accomplishments as being able to speak publicly as a black woman minister and businesswoman living with HIV. “Just being able to say that I did not give up on God and that I’ve made it means everything.”