Impassioned fighter for ‘the devil’s people’

“You Are HIV Positive” wrote the doctor who tested 36-year-old John Meletse in 2002.

He spelt it out in enormous capitals and held the page right in front of Meletse’s eyes.

Meletse, who was born deaf, covers his face with his hands as he tells his story of when he was tested for HIV.

His eyes fill with tears and he apologises through his interpreter for becoming emotional.

Meletse is an activist working with NGO the GALA (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action), and Anova Health, in Johannesburg educating deaf peer educators on how to spread the correct messages about HIV and Aids.

Poor schooling and a shortage of teachers who can use sign language mean that many deaf people have inadequate literacy, according to Anthony Manion of GALA.

“The average deaf person in South Africa has the literacy of an eight-year-old,” said Meletse.

This means communication campaigns about HIV do not reach them and myths thrive.

“Emerging evidence shows deaf people have amongst the highest levels of HIV in South Africa at 18%, but all official research only looks at HIV prevalence within disabled communities as a whole,” said Manion. “We are waiting for somebody to do research on HIV incidence [specifically] in the deaf community.”

There are between 500 000 and 600 000 deaf people in South Africa, according to WHO estimates.

Meletse said deaf people sometimes do not believe he is HIV positive because of his “good body”.

People whose hearing is not impaired believe myths such as that deaf people do not know how to have sex, he said.

In 2007, Meletse designed a comic book, with deaf artist Tommy Motswai, that uses pictures and simple phrases to explain HIV, Aids, being gay and sexual abuse.

Meletse’s face fills with passion as he explains that the health department is wrong to use ” HIV/Aids” as one term in its written communication. The department must explain the difference between HIV and Aids, he said.

Meletse calls Judge Edwin Cameron his role model.

“Cameron was celebrating 20 years of living with HIV in 2005. I was amazed. I wanted to do as Cameron did . I told myself that I will take a stand for deaf people and fight for them,” said Meletse.

He chose to be openly gay to challenge the stigma about gay people in the deaf community.

“They see gay people as devil’s people,” he said.

Before Meletse revealed his HIV status in 2006 a worker for a deaf people’s organisation revealed that he was HIV positive at a 2004 World Aids Day event.

by Katharine Child
Source – Times Live