Every time I give a tour at the AIDS foundation I currently work for, I share my status and say out loud, “I am HIV-positive.” But it has not always been easy to say these words to another person. As a matter of fact, it has been very recent since I have decided to reveal my status to anyone else other than my long-time partner and two close friends.
In early 2008, I lost a cousin to the AIDS epidemic, which motivated me to go and get tested. Later in the year, I found out I was HIV-positive. Fortunately, the benefits of living in San Francisco at the time came in handy, as I had access to valuable information on how to suppress my viral load to the point of becoming undetectable. For example, I learned about how I could increase my success rate of taking control over my diagnosis by starting treatment immediately.
That same year, I spoke to my Infectious Diseases doctor about starting treatment in January 2009. And, after a failed attempt to make Atripla work, I moved on to Truvada and Isentress. Soon after, I tested with an undetectable viral load. By the way, have you heard of the U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) campaign? Well, later I came to learn that I was undetectable and untransmittable. It has been confirmed that an individual who is HIV-positive and becomes undetectable while on sustained treatment is unable to transmit the virus. This was great news not only for me but also for my partner who is HIV-negative.
When I found out I was HIV-positive, my diagnosis did not become the center of my attention right there and then. However, I did make sure I would get linked to care. Moreover, it had been two years at that point since my relocation to San Francisco and I was still emotionally scarred. I was trying to heal childhood trauma; losing my mother at the age of five, child neglect, unstable housing, bullying at school, and the inability to continue being part of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation because I was gay. So, I packed up my things and fled to San Francisco in 2006 in search of a better life. But San Francisco continues to be one of the most unaffordable places to live in to this day. So, I worked round-the-clock to be able to afford housing there. As a result, my greater concern in 2008 was to be able to pay rent in San Francisco. Consequently, I never looked for an HIV-positive social support group, mental health, or any other resources to help me cope emotionally with my status.
You see, growing up, I was not shown how to navigate my emotions and express my needs. So, that made it even more difficult to be able to process my emotions regarding my status. Plus, the stigma associated with the virus did not make it any easier. Dealing with my status was something else I had added to the queue of unresolved issues and trauma that I would eventually start working on one at a time.
So, I took every opportunity I had to start the healing process. For example, I learned from my partner’s example, who is more emotionally-aware and more vocal about feelings, which helped me practice self-awareness and develop agency to express and take ownership over my feelings.
Additionally, I read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD, which influenced and helped me change my communication style positively. This book gave me exactly the tools I needed to put into words my feelings, needs, and wants. These are some of the steps I have actively taken to find some healing and now to be able to deal with my HIV status proactively.
Fast forward to two years ago, I came to realize I needed to connect with a community I could become a part of that would understand my HIV status and personal struggle with the diagnosis. The effort to reach out was slow and gradual as I was working on revealing my status and saying it out loud.
That is when I came across Radiant Health Centers (formerly AIDS Services Foundation Orange County) in August of last year and signed up to get a tour of the Service Center to learn more about their services. Little did I know, in December, 2017, I would join the staff there and have the privilege of conducting the same private tour I had just take a few months back. Additionally, I actively share my status through presentations I make in the community where I share the agency’s mission, goals, motivate the audience to get involved and help create a healthy Orange County.
In conclusion, I am very fortunate to live in an era where being HIV-positive no longer means a death sentence and where I can live a fulfilling life in the company of my loving partner. I have concluded that I have the social responsibility to empower others who are HIV-positive, destroy the stigma associated with the virus, and help many more prevent future transmissions by being open about my life experience dealing with my status.
Therefore, I will not lose any opportunity to say “I am HIV positive” loud and proud!
Josué E. Hernández currently lives in Orange County, CA with his partner, two Scottishfolds, Maxie and Carlota, and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Auggie. His dedication to raising awareness and bringing the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control is demonstrated by currently working as the Director of Annual Giving at Radiant Health Centers, the largest service provider to people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS in the county. He is particularly invested in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in Orange County, California, because his community is disproportionately being infected and affected; the Latino/Hispanic MSM (men who have sex with men) population has the highest infection rates in the county. Connect with Josué via his website: www.josuehernandez.us.