World AIDS Day 2011: Living with HIV

I got HIV at the age of 16 from my first boyfriend, who went by his gang name, Flyskee. Although I grew up with a wonderful mother, I was emotionally abused by my father and sexually abused by an uncle, which caused me to run away by the time I was 13. It was then that I met Flyskee. He became my family. At the time, I didn’t know that he was an IV drug user—but I also never thought HIV could happen to me. Back then, so many of us thought it was a homosexual
disease that only affected men.

After my diagnosis, I thought my life was over, so I returned home to die. But then something miraculous happened. Years began to pass, and I realized that HIV didn’t have to be a death sentence. I began to accept the fact that this disease was going to be with me until the end, so I became more spiritual and began to take better care of myself.

Yet with my newfound realization that death wasn’t imminent, shame and a desire to hide set in. I also began to lie about my status. It started with my mother, who is Colombian, trying to protect me and wanting to tell everyone that I was suffering from something else, like lupus. I was filled with shame for many years because of the stigma attached to the disease.

Eventually, something else changed in me. I had dated men all my life, but four years ago I met my wife, Lisa. She has never judged me and has always encouraged me to embrace everything about myself—including the fact that I’m HIV-positive.

Yet it wasn’t until last year, when Lisa’s sister died of cancer, that I thought to myself, “Why can’t I say
I have HIV? Why is it that anyone can say they have cancer or diabetes or any other health condition, and I’m so scared to disclose openly?”

I resolved to show my face and come out of the HIV closet in order to take some of the stigma away. I have seen people ranging from a baby to an 80-year-old woman who are living with the virus. It can happen to anyone—it takes only one instance of unprotected sex for you to be exposed. I no longer feel like a fugitive, a delinquent or a person in constant fear of people finding out that I have HIV.

After living with HIV for 20 years, I’ve become an activist and an advocate. Whether I’m challenging the misconception that HIV is no longer a serious disease—people wrongly believe that if they get infected, they’ll just take some pill and live a long life—or the sad fact that those living with HIV are being forgotten, I believe that I have the responsibility to educate those who need to be educated, and to empower those who are just beginning their own journey with the disease. I give talks in public schools, speak at classes at Jackson Memorial Hospital here in Miami, volunteer with the Red Cross and blog at thebody.com and thewellproject.org.

I have a passion and a drive that I didn’t know was possible, and I have realized that HIV is not a death sentence. It is a life sentence.

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