I recently went to my boss who is several older years than me for my daily sit-down to gossip and to catch up on office politics. I said, “Edith, there is something great about growing older!” She asked what I meant. I said, “I no longer have filters and can say exactly what I mean. I have nothing to prove to you and I have nothing to prove to myself.” She laughed and said, “It is great isn’t it!”
When I was younger, I watched what I said so as to not screw up my career. Now that I have no filters I am able to share the most intimate details of my life. I have gone from being very private person to an activist. It is quite liberating. I can say what everyone else wants to say without fear of recrimination. They can’t fire me and I don’t have to worry about climbing up the ladder anymore. In fact my confidence has actually propelled me up the ladder of success once again.
I recently participated in Through Positive Eyes which is an international photography project that gives people living with HIV the opportunity to pick up their own cameras, create art, and document the reality of their lives.
The project is based on the belief that challenging stigma against people living with HIV or AIDS is one of the most effective methods for combating the epidemic, and that photography is an immensely powerful way to do this.
Through Positive Eyes has now engaged with more than sixty photographers in five major cities: Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, and Washington DC., with plans to reach more in Mumbai, India; Kiev, Ukraine; Kampala, Uganda; and Bangkok, Thailand. I was one of the twelve participants chosen to represent Washington DC. You can learn more about this project and view videos of previous participants at throughpositiveeyes.org/.
Here is my story…
I graduated college at 19 and became the youngest officer in the history of the modern-day U.S. Air Force. After completing my duty, I became a university professor before accepting a job as an inventory manager for a Fortune 500 company. I was on top of the world! Then I received a diagnosis of being HIV+ which changed my life forever. I lost everything that I thought was important.
It didn’t take me long to advance to AIDS. Within a couple of years, I was down to five T-cells. The average T-cell count for a healthy HIV- person is 500-1300. I had a very personal relationship with these T-cells. Each one of them had a name. I was immediately put on Social Security Disability which I stayed on for the next 17 years.
Then the miracles started! I have always been a spiritual person, but HIV introduced me to a deeper spirituality that became my guiding light. After having numerous bouts with pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), I was once again in the hospital with one of those “mystery fevers”. My temperature kept rising and my family was told to go home as it would be a long night. After climbing to 107 degrees, a priest was called as I was not expected to live much longer. All of sudden, I saw the light. It was not a tunnel as they always say. It was the brightest horizon and my grandmothers were waiting for me. I was eager to go to the light but they stopped me and said it was not my time yet. They just wanted me to know that Heaven was a wonderful place and they would be waiting for me. I then awoke, and my temperature was normal. That was Miracle #1.
Several years later, I was diagnosed with progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a rare and usually fatal brain infection. Thanks to being put on the new protease inhibitors, the PML miraculously disappeared. Miracle #2!
After being undetectable for over 15 years I decided to go back to work again. And thanks to President Obama’s directive that Federal agencies hire veterans, I was offered a job with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington DC just over a year and a half ago. Considering today’s economic environment, getting a job is definitely Miracle #3.
Hepatitis C has also been a part of my life for over 30 years. Earlier this year I took new medication and have since been cured of this deadly disease. And that is Miracle #4.
I have discovered that too many people let HIV define them. Yes I am HIV+, but I am so much more. I am a father, a grandfather, a Christian, a parent to 4 Shih Tzus and a Toy Poodle, and a devoted partner in a monogamous almost 19 year relationship who was legally married in the District of Columbia two and a half years ago.
IHIV has changed my life forever, but in a good way. My life is now filled with love, dreams, and unlimited opportunities. My 25th anniversary of living with HIV this coming October will be a celebration. And I fully expect those miracles to keep coming.
How do I fight stigma? I find that I must be open, honest, and proud of whom I am. If you act ashamed and hide who you are, people will think there is something wrong with you. I know that I am a great guy, and for those that don’t agree, it is their loss.
My Through Positive Eyes project theme was spirituality. Often when we talk about spirituality, people think we are talking about church. It can be, but I find that there is a spiritual presence in all areas of my life. Even though I personally find peace in my faith and belief of a supreme creator, I also have found joy through the people in my life, in the nature of the world I live in, and also in the wonderful city I call home.
I believe that I am a child of God. We are all God’s children. The religious conservatives claim that as a gay person, I am an abomination in God’s eyes. But I was taught that God made us in his image. My God is perfect and doesn’t make mistakes. He made me as I am. So as I see it, I am one of his perfect creations.
One of my favorite pictures that I submitted for Through Healthy Eyes is one of my work team where they place their healing hands on me showing their support. My Director/Supervisor, Edith, is in the white blouse and sweater right behind me.
In closing, I would like to quote CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper who recently came out as gay. He said “I love and I am loved.” That describes my life too. I am truly a blessed man.