Remembering Janet Cleveland

It started with a text from Jono Mermin at the CDC saying Janet Cleveland had passed. I thought it was a mistake, so I did not respond. It still does not feel real. I’ve attended too many memorials or celebrations of life. It never gets any easier and the losses keep piling up.

I imagine Janet had some tough times at the CDC. As a black woman who did not have a medical degree, the CDC in the early days were tragic. Systems were built by white straight male researchers to mostly benefit other white straight male researchers and doctors. At the same time, Janet was the face of CDC to many in the field. She was the first person community called when we had an issue with the HIV bureau. As I would too often say, it’s nothing personal, it’s my job. Poor Janet saw me go off about one thing or another, yet she always smiled and took my calls.

Back in the ’90s, Janet Cleveland, Julie Scofield, Frank Beadle de Paloma, David Holtgrave, and I were the motley crew that worked to put on the Community Planning Leadership Summits (CPLS) that transformed into the HIV Planning Leadership Summits (HPLS). We came together to visibly demonstrate how the CDC can work with health departments and community. Through this process we formed a bond that I miss. Going to Atlanta for Janet’s funeral made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve attended a CDC or NASTAD consultation.

That little dig would usually get me a call from Janet that started, “well Paul, you have to understand…” Image being stuck between me and the CDC. I know it’s not fun and that’s why I respected Janet. At her funeral I learned that she was a good Christian woman, and I will not hold that against her.

This has been a tough year and I have one more in December. I’ve always admired Paul Monette’s ability to find love and joy in the middle of the plague. I was the opposite. The more I lost the more I cut myself off from others. The pain and loss were too much. I needed to protect my heart. My generation was damaged but carried on. We changed the world. The price was heavy, and we continue to pay.

There is a storm on the horizon called the Supreme Court. The 5th circuit is their template for getting cases to SCOTUS and HIV PrEP is in their sights. They are thinking much bigger than HIV PrEP; they want the Affordable Care Act. This case could back door the ACA and throw it into chaos. The impact on the lives of people living with HIV is unimaginable. Are we not ready for this fight?

Janet lived her life with grace and kindness. She was good to our community because she came from our community. Her death is a loss for our movement, and I truly worry for our work to end the HIV epidemic. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for Janet Cleveland and all she did to support community and our work to end the epidemics.


Yours in the Struggle,

Paul Kawata

Paul Kawata