Positive since 1991
I had just turned 18 in 1991 when I found out I was HIV positive. Back in those days, HIV was a death sentence. It was around the same time Magic Johnson came out saying he was positive. I was studying in a program in Kentucky called Job Corp and they provided HIV testing for all the new students. I thought HIV was a disease for prostitutes, drug users or homosexuals so I never thought I would become positive.
A month passed and I kept getting slips from the clinic telling me to come back in. When I went to the clinic I remember an Asian doctor looking at me with eyes of horror. He asked me, "Why didn’t you come in sooner?” He sat me down but didn’t even prepare me. He just said you have AIDS. I went into shock. I didn’t say a word and saw my whole life pass in front of me. I thought I am going to die. My life is over and I will never marry or have kids.
I was alone when I received the news. All of my immediate family was in Miami. The school told me there was another kid who also had HIV and I could continue to stay at the school, but all I wanted was to go and die at home. I called my mom and said, “Mom, I have AIDS.” She told me, “Don’t worry you will not die from this.” She was always my strength. Two days later I was back home and waiting to die.
Back then, people were dropping like flies and AZT was the only thing available. I was referred to a social worker and a doctor who gave me a piece of paper that stated, “If you take AZT, it may damage your internal organs.” I thought, no way am I taking that, and I believe I did the right thing by not taking those high dosages of AZT back then. I didn’t take any antiretrovirals for almost 10 years and kept myself healthy–or as healthy as I could–with natural medicine. I do take HIV medication now.
I have learned a lot over the years and have helped many people infected and affected along the way. I learned to love myself more and to take care of myself. I have taken away the stigma of being HIV positive and educated many people. I also became an activist and HIV peer educator. I learned that I am still living, and to have hope. Being positive made me a more positive person. And although I am HIV positive, I feel that I am a human being that happens to have the condition of being HIV positive. I have learned to be stronger.
I am the most fulfilled by helping people—especially young people, because I became infected at such a young age. I have gone to schools to educate them and they look at me and think anyone can be HIV positive. I am a public and motivational speaker and have spoken at many conferences, universities and schools. I am also a pre- and post- counselor who tests people for HIV, as well as an HIV educator for Jackson Memorial Hospital. I am a blogger for The Well Project, Thebody.com and a volunteer for the Red Cross. I am in the Gilead advocate program and and also a media activist who has founded two international groups on Facebook in English and Spanish. I am also very active on Twitter and YouTube and I make bilingual video blogs for both English and Spanish speakers.
This is my passion. I wish I had had someone like me when I was told I was infected. When I tell someone they are HIV positive I hold them and say “You are not alone and if you do what you are supposed to do you will live a long life.” Having me as an example calms them down. That makes me happy.
To give is one of the most wonderful things a human being can do. I have so much to tell and my story is very complex. I have been through so much and learned so much in these 20 plus years. I can truly say that being positive saved my life and brought many learning experiences.
For most of my life I have been in long-term relationships with HIV negative men, but I am now happily married to a woman that is wonderful and caring. We have been together almost five years and she is HIV negative.
My mission is to continue doing outreach in the community, especially prevention and education in the schools. It is part of my every day life to educate everyone I can on this subject. Being HIV positive is nothing to be ashamed of.
I remember what my poor, strong mother said when I told her. She told me I will not die from this, but also said I should tell my family I had another disease. I was a kid and she was ignorant on the subject of HIV. But without her love and support I would have never made it.
Being HIV positive is not a punishment; it is just a condition that we have to live with. And it’s not a disease of homosexuals, drug addicts or prostitutes. I have seen infants and 80-year old ladies with this condition. We have to empower ourselves and teach ourselves self worth and teach people not to pity us.
I am not going to minimize the seriousness of the illness. It is not easy. That is what I teach people who think they do not need to protect themselves because they can just take some pills and they’ll be fine. They don’t know the side effects and things we have to endure mentally with this illness.
The message I give is the same no matter what community I am speaking to: Love yourself, test yourself, protect yourself! And for those who are not infected: Always respect this virus. It may not be a death sentence anymore, but it is a life sentence. You get no breaks. For those that are positive, there is life after HIV. From the deepest darkness comes the brightest light. This is not a moral disease, but a human condition. Love and light.
What three adjectives best describe you?
Fighter, activist, passionate
What is your greatest achievement?
When I inspire young people with my story and they tell me they are now protecting themselves. If I save one life, my mission is complete.
What is your greatest regret?
There is not enough time in the day for me to help others. Everybody wants happiness nobody wants pain. But you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain. We evolve and learn from good and bad.
What keeps you up at night?
My wife. We love to talk and watch our favorite shows.
If you could change one thing about living with HIV, what would it be?
No more medicine. I want a cure. Or at least live with the virus but take something once that won’t let the virus affect our t cells.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Talk less, listen more. To forgive is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. To wish light and love to everyone—even the ones that attack us or hurt us. It is important for our spirit.
What person in the HIV/AIDS community do you most admire?
The late Ryan White was one of the biggest inspirations in my life. He died the year I was diagnosed. Also, my personal friend Dab Garner, who is like a brother to me. And the fighter Larry Kramer!
What drives you to do what you do?
My soul! My passion! My pain! My spirit! My need to help others who are hurting and starting the process or to prevent someone in becoming infected and going through what I went through.
What is your motto?
HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence anymore, but it is a life sentence. You get no breaks. Love yourself, test yourself, protect yourself! HIV/AIDS is not a moral disease; it is a human condition.
If you had to evacuate your house immediately, what is the one thing you would grab on the way out?
Besides my beautiful partner/wife Lisa Laing and my dog Flea, I would grab my jewelry. Many of them have sentimental value.
If you could be any animal, what would you be? And why?
A dolphin. I have swam with them and they are very smart and loving. Their eyes are very human like and tender and I would love to swim real fast like them. I’ve heard that they have saved lives too.
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