For Christa Douaihy (’08), the roots of her HIV/AIDS justice work go deep, back to the early 1990s in Scranton, PA.
“At that time, the AIDS crisis was still acute,” remembers Douaihy. So was public panic and misunderstanding about the disease and its transmission. “Deep societal ills of racism, homophobia, and fear fueled the AIDS stigma,” she observed.
Douaihy, still in high school at the time, along with her twin sister, Margot, and some friends, decided to get Red Cross-certified as peer educators on HIV/AIDS. They went to classrooms and community centers to help reduce hatred and bring more compassion. At the same time, she educated peers on how to prevent transmission of the virus.
“Ever since high school, participation in the HIV/AIDS justice movement has been a driving force in my life, a source of inspiration, and a focal point of my law practice,” says Douaihy, who has worked for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, representing clients with HIV/AIDS in Westchester County. In law school, she interned at Gay Men’s Health Crisis and worked with many CUNY Law alumni.
Now an attorney with the Civil Action Practice at The Bronx Defenders, Douaihy leads one of the group’s interdisciplinary teams that defends clients after arrest or conviction and supports them in the often ensuing fallout, which may include loss of a job or occupational license, eviction, or loss of government benefits.
“Many of our clients are HIV-positive,” says Douaihy. “We work collaboratively to meet the acute needs of individuals and families whose arrest, incarceration, or family court involvement trigger complex and intertwined civil legal problems.”
The Bronx Defenders, while not exclusively involved in representing people living with HIV/AIDS, practice in a largely impoverished part of the city. Roughly a third of Bronx residents live below the poverty rate, almost double the state average. At the same time, the HIV infection rate in the Bronx is more than double that of Queens.
When clients have AIDS and struggle with day-to-day health issues, the last thing they need is to think about how and where they are going to live. One client, Linda, had been diagnosed with AIDS in 2009. On a fixed income from supplemental security income and HIV/AIDS Services Administration and on food stamps, Linda found herself facing an aggressive eviction sanctioned by the district attorney, including accusations of criminal conduct that were ultimately dismissed, according to Douaihy.
“Her landlord was adamant and wanted her out,” she recalls. “The landlord’s attorney at one point said, ‘People are cured of AIDS these days. Maybe she’s faking it.’”
Douaihy eventually resolved the case, but her client’s stress worsened her health and made her more fearful of getting locked out and being homeless.
Bearing witness to situations like this one emboldened Douaihy “to fight harder for brave people like Linda.”
Besides working for The Bronx Defenders, Douaihy also serves as a legal advisor at TheBody.com, where she provides expert advice on questions about a variety of HIV-related issues, including employment discrimination and remedies for impermissible disclosure of confidential HIV information. She serves, as well, as the secretary for the NYC Bar Association’s Special Committee on AIDS.
What drives her every day is working with and learning from “clients, colleagues, and advocates I meet who are striving to eradicate HIV animus and who work for a better world in general,” Douaihy says.
– Paul Lin