I'm asked all the time about my advocacy work and outreach I do. It's stated that I am an LGBT/HIV advocate on all my profiles. The truth is I do as much as I can, and at times it doesn't feel like enough. It's hard to be passionate about so many things and still give each issue the attention it deserves. With the upcoming World AIDS Day this December, I have been tirelessly working on articles and ways to promote organizations that are doing something to either educate folks or eradicate the disease.
Over the last year I have written lots of articles with HIV as the subject matter. To me, that is what I am doing to help educate people and make a difference. That is my contribution to spreading information and killing the stigma that surrounds HIV. For those who personally know me, know that I also do personal outreach within the community in San Francisco. I volunteer with organizations and speak with newly diagnosed people.
What I have never done is publicly write my personal story for everyone to read. I am not ashamed of my HIV-positive status, and I don't hide the fact that I have HIV, but I have never taken the time to write my personal viewpoint, mostly due to fear: fear of the response from the ignorant, or from people who are just hateful. It's just not something I have ever been prepared for. It is one thing to be out to your friends, family, and community, but it's another to be out to the Internet. Telling everyone you are HIV-positive is like coming out for a second time.
In the coming months, people living in San Francisco will begin to see my face on posters for the San Francisco Aids Foundation. I have lent my face and my story as a volunteer and client. The hopes of the campaign are to show the real faces of HIV and of the foundation. Of course, this is extremely nerve-wracking for me: It means that all who see my face will then know my HIV status.
After careful thought, I decided I was ready to publicly come out as HIV-positive. When I moved to San Francisco, there was one motivating thought behind it: People would accept me for who I am here, even with HIV. After 14 months in the city, I have realized that my expectations of acceptance were only partially accurate. There is still such a stigma around HIV, and the sad truth was that a majority of it came from the LGBTQ community. Not only was I shocked and disheartened by my community, but I truly felt hurt.
My story doesn't differ from most, and my story doesn't pardon me or put me on a different level than others with HIV. I was young, met a man I loved, got married, and decided we didn't need to use protection. It was a perfect union until I found out my perfect husband was not being faithful. Fast-forward many months later, and I ended up contracting HIV as a result of his infidelities. It's an unfortunate story, but it's my story.
It took me a couple of years to fully accept my fate and stop punishing myself for my mistake. That's right, I didn't blame him; I blamed myself for allowing it to happen. Regardless, it was time to move on. I channeled my energy into volunteering and meeting other people who were in similar situations. I realized I now had an opportunity to be a voice and an advocate, to help educate those who were still afraid, or those who were newly diagnosed and felt like they had no hope. The moment I fully understood how much of a difference I could actually make was the moment my life changed.
The stigma around HIV will never end unless those who are living with HIV come out and show the world that they are living normal lives and that HIV is just a part of them and doesn't define them. So many advances in medicine have brought us to a place where HIV is now something you can live with by taking a few pills a day, or, in some cases, one pill a day. It's no longer necessarily what is use to be: a death sentence. Personally, the only time I ever really think about it is when I am disclosing it to others. It's not the easiest conversation to have, but disclosure and openness about HIV is the true path to ending the spread of the disease and the stigma surrounding it.
On Sept. 21 Positively Aware magazine will sponsor the third annual "Day with HIV," a photo essay, and will publish parts of it in their end-of-year issue. An estimated 7,000 people across the globe, including 900 children, will contract HIV each day, joining an estimated 34.2 million people already living with the virus. During any 24 hours, more than 4,600 people around the world will die of an AIDS-related case.
On Friday, Sept. 21, people everywhere, both HIV-positive and negative, can share an image of coping and care through the lens of a camera. On that day, Positively Aware is asking people to take a digital photograph to record a moment of their day that will focus the world's attention on the daily trials and triumphs of people living with HIV. For the third year, A Day with HIV will help remove the stigma of HIV and advance an international community of care through this collective photographic portrait. I will be taking my photo and writing my story for the site on Friday.
This will be my second year participating but my first year promoting my personal photograph. It's time to end stigma against HIV and move forward. Education, acceptance, and forgiveness are essential in moving forward. Education is needed for those who don't know much or anything about HIV, and for those who are newly diagnosed. Acceptance is needed from those who are not directly affected by HIV, and from those of us who are affected. Acceptance is needed within our own community and outside of the community. And lastly, forgiveness is needed. Everyone who blames themselves or blames others needs to learn to forgive and move on. You can never really heal if you are still blaming others or yourself.