Evany Turk is a role model and HIV activist in Dallas, Texas. But that's miles — literally and figuratively — from where she was when she was first diagnosed in her early 20s. Once nearly paralyzed by stigma, the mother of two went on to work for the University of Chicago’s Pediatric Infectious Diseases department, visiting schools in the area's predominantly black and Latino communities. The only thing more impressive that Turk’s resume is her moving story about how she came to terms with HIV.
When she first learned her diagnosis, she left the doctor’s office with "a plan to kill myself." In fact, she ended up attempting suicide multiple times before reaching a point where she felt “required to deal with it.”
“I initially thought no one would love me anymore," Turk explains. "People would judge me and not want to be around me. I was afraid of myself so I absolutely knew everyone else would be afraid of me too."
She says that because of "all this internal stigma," she initially tried to run away from HIV. "I moved to another state and tried to start a life where not many people knew me and there wouldn't be anyone asking questions about my health nor any reminders about receiving that diagnosis.”
Eventually, with the help of therapy, Turk began to see her disease differently. Her therapist encouraged her to learn more about HIV; and that first step became the foundation to a career of helping others deal with their diagnoses.
“The people I met in support groups, at various agencies and events were all so inspiring and supportive that I just wanted to help in any way I could; because they helped me more than they will ever know," she says now. "So when I was asked to speak for the first time I agreed."
Even though Turk is naturally shy, and feared the stigma of being openly positive, she did it anyway. "Afterwards, with all the love I received I felt like a piece of my broken heart was mended," Turk recalls now. "I realized that I could help people — especially women, because we are forgotten about a lot in this fight — with my experiences and story and this work could help me heal."
"So," Turk concludes, "I committed full time to loving on other people who were trying their hardest to live a life with HIV."
That passion for educating others about the disease has allowed her to speak to high school students and teachers about preventing HIV, and STIs. It wasn't long before Turk noticed a major problem with current approaches to sex education for teenagers — too frequently it was hampered by "abstinence only" requirements. Which just wasn’t working.
“Many public schools in the U.S. are actually doing a disservice to students by not providing them with evidence-based, medically accurate, developmentally appropriate sexual health education... People have to understand that times have changed and young people are deciding to have sex although they are told not to, so why not equip them with the knowledge, skills and resources to keep them healthy? I think that is our responsibility as adults.” Doing just that became a core part of Turk’s advocacy work in Chicago, where she worked alongside the Illinois Alliance for Sound AIDS Policy (IL ASAP) to push for comprehensive sex education in the state’s schools.
Turk, like many advocates, longs for the day that her work is replaced by a cure. Until then, she is steadfast in her love of advocacy. She has come so far from those first troubled days after she received her diagnosis. Now she lives a full life as a mother and an advocate. Turk’s aspirations for her future include launching and operating her own youth center “similar to a Boys and Girls club.” She works well with kids, Turk says, and their resilience has taught her, “how to overcome fears and allowed me to teach them some things about life.”