I realize I’m a little late with this, as World AIDS Day was last Sunday December 1st, but I wanted to take this post to honor those who have been lost to AIDS related illnesses and those who continue to fight for their lives every day.
For me, the fight is personal. One of my best friend’s is HIV positive. For the sake of privacy, let’s call him “Angel”, after my favorite character from RENT, who quite frankly, reminds me of my friend.
Angel and I met in college, when a group he was a part of visited my college campus. The details aren’t important other than to say that we hit it off immediately and that summer I visited him at his house in Virginia. The friendship grew from there and although we didn’t see each other often (as we lived nearly 4 hrs apart) we kept in touch thanks to all the conveniences of modern technology.
It was only a year later that Angel was diagnosed. I remember the day he told me well; I was wrapping up a fast-paced 3 day weekend visit with him and he asked me if I wanted to talk a walk with him. As we walked around his neighborhood that beautiful summer morning, Angel shared that he’d gone for his bi-annual HIV test. Though I’d only know Angel for a short time, I knew that this was something he did religiously, regardless of whether or not he thought he had reason to be tested. Just 6 months earlier his test came back negative. Now, the words he shared next would forever alter my world. “ You know I haven’t been feeling well lately….and well I got my 6 month HIV test….and… it came back positive” he told me, his voice quiet, but strong. The details over how the virus was transmitted are unimportant, though he shared them with me. All that mattered was that he was positive.
A flood of emotions flew through me as I digested the news. Anger, fear over what the diagnosis meant, terror that I was going to have to watch him die. One note came through it all though, through all the tears that Angel and I cried together as we processed this news. And that one note was trust.
I was humbled that Angel trusted me enough to share such a huge piece of news with me, especially when he had only found out himself about a week prior to my arrival. I was determined to be there for him, no matter what, to provide him the support and encouragement he needed. I wouldn’t let this change my relationship with him either. I wasn’t about to screw this up. Suddenly, this relationship here seemed the most important one in my life.
The next few days and weeks were filled with me learning everything I could about HIV. Words like T-Cells and viral load and antiretroviral therapy soon became part of my everyday language. I immersed myself in knowledge, desperate to determine how this would impact Angel. It seemed to me that life with him would never be the same.
And indeed, in some respects, it isn’t. It’s not uncommon for me to ask about his T-cell count if I haven’t talked to him in a while. The topic of disclosure inevitably came up with discussing romantic and sexual partners and sometimes even just friends. I recently visited Angel in London where he was studying abroad. One morning I accompanied him to the HIV clinic at the local hospital where he had an appointment for some blood work. As we sat waiting, an older woman quietly approached us and offered us some literature about HIV and area support groups. At what struck me then was that this had become my life. Somehow going to an HIV clinic with my friend had become completely normal. I wasn’t ashamed to be there with him. In fact, I was honored that he felt comfortable enough with me that he didn’t have to hide. And for me, that was the best feeling of all. To know that, despite everything, our relationship really hadn’t changed that much at all. We still laugh together, sing together, travel together. We support each other through the good times and the bad. We share meals and drinks and love. So much love.
Not everyone has this type of support. Not everyone has people in their lives who understand that being HIV positive doesn’t change a damn thing about who they are intrinsically. People are still ostracized and cut off from family and friends. And there are still millions of people all over the world that don’t have access to life-saving drugs or prevention measures. The World Health Organization estimates that 2011 there were 34 million people living with HIV and 1.7 million deaths from AIDS-related illness.
That’s why the fight is still so important. That’s why I choose to honor those living with HIV and AIDS on World AIDS day. And that’s why I choose to donate to charities that support this fight. Because there is hope. One day we will see a world where people’s status doesn’t cause them shame and rejection. One day we will see a world without AIDS and HIV. But only if we all stand strong in the fight. And we have to stand strong every single day. I’ll never let Angel feel like he’s alone in this. I’ll be there for him no matter what. And I’ll keep shouting the importance of testing and prevention and most important of all love. Love that says it doesn’t matter if you’re positive, I’m here with you. Wherever you are. I’ve got your back. And I won’t stop fighting for you because your life matters. I’m in. Are you?