June 2, 2011
At just 18-months-old, I had to undergo a blood transfusion following abuse I'd suffered at the hands of a family friend. The transfusion was successful and I survived, but a few months later my mother learned that the donor whose blood I received had recently died from GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency) -- the original name for HIV. The doctor explained to her that there was no cure for this little-known disease and I probably didn't have much longer to live. Four years later my mother received a phone call informing her that treatment for my condition was finally available. After that call, she revealed to me for the first time that I was HIV positive. Even though I didn't understand what that meant, I could tell that it was something that hurt my mother very deeply. In order to protect her feelings, I kept my emotions bottled up for years and suffered in silence.
When I turned 12, I attended my first support group meeting and finally had the opportunity to share what I was going through, from the horrible medications I had to take to the debilitating side effects that were keeping me up at night. For years that support group was the only place where I felt comfortable opening up about my experience living with HIV. Outside of that space, I was energetic, charming, handsome Billy, and I never discussed my disease status. This worked for a while, but things got complicated when I started to become attracted to girls. Because of my reluctance to disclose my HIV status, I didn't become sexually active until I turned 18. When I finally revealed my status to my girlfriend at the time she handled the news well. We were together for an entire year after that and broke up on what seemed like good terms soon after I left for college. But two years later the president of my university called to inform me that the school had received an anonymous letter alerting them to my HIV status. I knew immediately that my ex-girlfriend was behind it, because she was the only person I'd ever told. It took years of counseling and prayer to recover from that betrayal. When I finally built the courage to disclose again, a lot of people insisted that I "had to be gay" because they didn't believe that a heterosexual could live with HIV as long as I had and be in such good shape. After a while it seemed like those I encountered were more interested in debating my sexuality than learning about the disease. What people fail to realize is that heterosexual black men make up a large portion of those infected with HIV in our country. Unfortunately, many of these men don't disclose their HIV status for fear of being labeled and their silence is killing our community.
Because of my experience, I've dedicated my life to the fight against HIV/AIDS, but I can't do it alone. It's time for other HIV positive straight black men to take responsibility and stand up in this fight as well.
William Brawner, 30, is the Founder & Executive Director of Haven Youth Center, a non-profit, providing services to HIV-positive youth in Philadelphia, PA.