*The following narrative is from one of our HIV-positive scholarship applicants. It has been minimally changed to remove any identifying information.*
It was the week after I took an HIV test that I got a call from my doctor to come into her office to discuss the results. Prior to that test, I hadn’t been tested a year and a half. Subconsciously, I had assumed that I was invincible—I was young and healthy and rarely sick. I knew that my sexual encounters had an inherent risk of HIV transmission and while I didn’t always use a condom, I believed that the risk of contracting the virus was too low for me to worry about. However, when I went in to meet my doctor that day, my worst fear was affirmed: I had tested positive for HIV.
At the time, this news felt like the death of a family member, and I quickly went through the various stages of grief. At first I was in denial—there had to be an error with the test results. I had never engaged in behaviors I assumed were typical of the “kinds of people” who contracted HIV; but I hadn’t realize how common it was for a partner who wasn’t being treated for the virus to pass it on. After further testing showed that I was, indeed, positive, I slowly began my journey of learning about the virus and, ultimately, about myself, including challenging the assumptions and ignorance I had about people who lived with the virus.
After some immediate research of my own and counseling with the doctor, I stopped panicking about my long term health—I knew I would be okay once I started drug therapy and that I would be able to live a long and healthy life while being HIV-positive. I was much more worried about the social stigma that comes with being HIV-positive. And while it wasn’t immediate, I slowly came to accept my status and began realizing that the virus wouldn’t change or define who I am as a human. After seeing how hard my status initially hit me and the effects of the HIV stigma, I knew I would make it a goal of mine to become an advocate for a healthy and successful life while being positive. I struggled deeply at first with disclosure—I found it tough to open up about my new status to potential partners and dates. The more I practiced, however, the better I got at this, and the many rejections I received have ultimately made my skin thicker. I am having less casual sex, practicing safe sex, and continually learning about how to lead a healthy lifestyle while being HIV-positive. Although the news of becoming positive hit me like a traumatic event at first, it has ultimately served to strengthen my resolve and has made me a more resilient and determined person.
I wish more people understood what it is like to live life being HIV-positive—especially the stigma surrounding it. For me, the societal taboo has been the toughest part of living with the virus. There are other parts, too, that most people without HIV don’t understand: like the financial aspect— I’ve had to spend thousands of dollars and countless of hours on treatment. But while there is plenty that people don’t know, not all of that unknown is bad—far from it! The medical marvels in research that have been made in the last 25 years are incredible. For example: I now know I’m going to live a long and healthy life largely unhampered by being HIV-positive. That’s not something people could say in the past, and as time goes by, I become more and more certain of my health. There is very low risk now, if any, of the virus escalating to full blown AIDS in my body and causing disastrous illnesses as long as I continue my drug therapy and regular checkups. The drugs used to treat the virus are also highly advanced—there are no longer complicated drug “cocktails” to take, and the drugs will no longer destroy or damage vital organs like my kidneys. My regimen is only one pill—one!—a day. It’s like taking a vitamin C tablet or fish oil every morning before breakfast, and I have no side effects or risk of serious damage to other parts of my body. In fact, it’s less cumbersome to manage my HIV than many other chronic illnesses, even ones that are generally accepted as common or mundane, like diabetes.
Since becoming positive, I have become much more passionate and empathetic about the plights of others in the HIV community, particularly other young and low income individuals. Because of that, I have been volunteering with a local HIV/AIDS nonprofit—it’s very near and dear to my heart not only because of being positive myself, but also because serving my community has always been one of my greatest passions.
I’m blessed and humbled to be matriculating at one of the top business schools in the country. I have met with and committed to joining my university’s LGBT group. Currently, they do not have active philanthropic participation, so I will be working on creating partnerships with organizations in the surrounding area to make sure we have regular involvement in the community. I will continue and expand my personal participation in HIV/AIDS philanthropy, particularly within the youth and LGBT community, and I look forward to volunteering with nonprofits in my state. After graduating and joining the workplace once again, I plan on doing pro bono consulting with small and mid-sized non-profits—my goal is to provide strategic analysis of their business and figure out how to help them grow and reach more donors and more people of need in the HIV/AIDS community.
Accepting myself as being HIV-positive has been a journey, and it was tough partly because there weren’t any visible role models at the time who were open about being positive. One of my goals is to become the type of advocate that I desperately wished was out there when I first became positive. I envision a future where youth—not just LGBT, but across all sexualities and all communities—are educated about the virus, are safe and informed, and have access to resources and research on HIV— including visible role models and advocates that are leading successful and powerful lives, completely out with their status and actively fighting the stigma.