How did your younger brother react -- the one who isn't HIV positive, and who knew early on?
We were all fairly close in age, with a six-year span between us. We grew up together in a rural part of Pennsylvania. It wasn't like we had a lot of friends around us. As brothers, we were just pretty open with each other. Our older brothers didn't grow up with us. They were much older than us, so they were out of the house as we were growing up. The three of us were fairly close and we just talked about a lot of stuff. We just told him and he was involved in that, involved in the knowing.
We didn't tell our parents [laughs] and we didn't tell anyone else. I think it was because we were just struggling with how we'd have this conversation, because what anyone saw on the news was people dying. Since neither one of us was having any issues at that moment, we didn't want to put them through living with the thought that we were going to be dead in a week. This was at a time when people were really just dropping off so quickly.
We made a pact that if neither one of us was showing outward signs or getting quite ill quickly, then we wouldn't say anything until that occurred.
What was it that inspired you to tell them the six or seven years after that?
When we had more information on HIV/AIDS it was just an easier conversation to have at that point, because we were much more secure in our own knowledge base.
We had decided on a Saturday that we were going to tell them. I think we did it that Sunday after the football game.
After the football game, you didn't sit them down and say, "Mom, Dad, we have something to tell you" -- you just told them?
Oh, no! Maybe on TV they do that -- "Here, here, I got something that you need to know! This is happening!" -- but not in our family. I think that's just the way our family operates. We would just put it out there and say, "Oh, OK." Pretty calm.
It sounds like you're all very communicative. How did they react?
I think they were a little frightened. I just remember my Dad's immediate reaction was, "Oh, my goodness!" Basically, I remember him saying, "Well, what are we supposed to do?" What are they supposed to do? "There's nothing for you to do." "Oh ... OK."
Then they wanted to know how we found out. I think my mom was just a little miffed that we didn't tell her sooner, since we had known for a couple of years. But she understood the reason why, because my mother was a nurse and she had seen patients dying of AIDS complications. We just didn't want to put her through all of that.
It was a rare thing in that moment, because we didn't live in New York. We were actually in Pennsylvania, so there weren't as many cases. But there were huge newspaper articles, and a lot of people knew or were connected to someone, because where we were at in Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, was still a small town. If you saw someone's picture in the paper, it was like everybody knew.
All together, you've gotten some very good responses to telling people about your HIV status. What's the best response that you've ever gotten when you disclosed to someone?
The one that probably surprised me the most was from one of my older aunts. A portion of our family had been living in Puerto Rico, and she was basically the last person living there. When she came back to Pennsylvania around 1999, she knew that I was HIV positive, or living with AIDS, because she was told. It was stunning to me that -- at that time she was 87 years old, or 85 -- she actually understood that we were talking about a disease. She didn't put any qualifiers on it. She seemed to have more information about the disease than I did, because she actually had done some community service at one of the hospitals in the San Juan area, so she was well versed in HIV/AIDS -- more well versed than me and my brother. I was surprised! To this day, she's probably a little more well versed than I am. [Laughs.]
What is the worst response you got when you disclosed?
I think the worst response was no response. That was from some different cousins that I had grown up with who were like, "Oh, OK" -- and then the relationship was never ever the same. Very rarely have we spoken in the last 15 years.
How have your relationships with other family members and friends changed since your HIV diagnosis?
Aside from the three cousins I just haven't spoken with, my relationships really haven't changed with anybody. I think that's because we brought our family (and when I say family, I mean immediate family -- brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and great-nieces and -nephews) through the whole HIV/AIDS arena. They're all fairly well educated on all of the issues of HIV/AIDS. They actually -- each one of them -- work, in some way, as a volunteer doing something around HIV/AIDS in the different locations around the country where they live, through church networks and other organizations that they work with. They just help to raise their own awareness.
It sounds like you come from a very supportive family -- and a very big family. You grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania?
Yes, a semi-small town. We're an hour from Pittsburgh, so we're close enough to a big town, but everything that's an hour from Pittsburgh becomes a small town. [Laughs.]
Can you tell me more about your background?
All together, I have seven brothers.
No sisters. Our family heritage is African, Spanish, Native American -- or First Nation -- and Dutch. Culturally, I would say most of us would probably consider ourselves African American.
Because of our Spanish roots, we came up through the Caribbean and through Trinidad to Puerto Rico. We actually had a family farm in Puerto Rico up until 1999, when my aunt finally came up here, because she was the last person there.
Are you partnered, or in a relationship now?
I've had a couple of relationships in my 50-plus years on this planet [laughs], but my current relationship is a same-gender loving relationship.
How long have you been with your current partner?
Eleven years. We've known each other for 20-some years, but we've been together as a couple for 11 years. From Pennsylvania, I moved to Chicago before I moved to New York. We worked for the same company; they brought me and a couple of other people from Pennsylvania plus a couple of people from Wisconsin and Ohio together and they put us all in the same place. We all got to meet each other and know each other through working together. Then from that group house I just moved to New York, because I didn't care for working with the company that we'd all started with together.
It sounds like you're open with your family; they know that you're in a same-sex relationship.
Oh, yes. I can't imagine living any other way. [Laughs.] I've always known my sexuality since I was five years old! I think I just come from a family where we consider ourselves sexual creatures. If you're a human being, you're sexual. How that manifests itself is going to be different for everybody. My younger brother, who has since passed away, was bisexual -- I guess that's the word you're supposed to use -- and then all my other brothers are heterosexual.
When did your brother pass away?
Six years ago. I don't like to guess why some of us are surviving and why some of us are not. Why he's not, I just don't know, but his body just gave out. The drugs stopped working for him at a certain point, and that's just the way that is.
Different people react to different things in very different ways, even if they're close.
Yes, even if you're in the same family. I've talked about that with other people who have siblings that were HIV positive, how we're still alive and they're not. It's not that they did anything that much different than we did, so we just don't know the answer to that.
How has your family handled your brother's passing, knowing that you also have HIV?
I think that the last decade has been a little rougher, because both of our parents are gone now. My brother was the last person in our immediate family that passed away. I think that because we're a fairly close group of people, and we know that death is inevitable for all of us, I think our faith just lets that be what it's supposed to be. We just go on from there.
Would you consider yourself a religious or spiritual person?
I would consider myself a person of faith. [Laughs.] The religion I belong to allows me to come to it as my full self. I belong to a religious denomination called United Church of Christ. I can be a member there exactly as who I am. There's no "don't tell" business going on in that religion or that denomination. [Editor's note: In 2009, Oliver was elected board president for the United Church of Christ's National HIV and AIDS Network (UCAN, Inc.).]
The religion itself is Christianity. I do follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, but then I also like the teachings of Buddha, Muhammad and some other people, too. A little bit of everything, but my ultimate would probably be Jesus Christ, for myself.
That's great, that this denomination is really open to people living with HIV and people of a variety of different identities.
I think it's probably like a lot of societies. Some people struggle with it. Some people are not struggling with it. But there's a medium in there, and this is a fairly safe space. We do have a whole HIV/AIDS ministry at Riverside Church in New York City.
What do you think is the greatest challenge that African-American communities face with regards to HIV/AIDS?
I think that stigma is still a major factor. I think that miseducation about the disease is still a factor. I think those are the two biggest factors. I would say the third factor is that we do know that there are real ways to prevent HIV for yourself as an individual, but I don't think that we teach prevention well enough.
What do you think is the source of that stigma, or the source of that miseducation, in the African-American community specifically?
I think because our African-American community is a smaller construct of the larger community of the United States, and, unfortunately, for several decades we had no national strategy for HIV and AIDS -- although we exported strategies to other countries, we went so long without having one of our own! [Laughs.] To me, there's a whole disconnect for us as an entire community and that only gets magnified when you start to go into smaller minority groups.
I think that in a lot of minority groups -- I'll stick with African American because I work there a little bit more -- we still have some other issues of poverty that impact our ability to do good prevention education.
I don't like to use the word "racism," since I am a believer that we belong to one race -- it's called the human race -- but there's a difference in colorization, which is a little bit different than race itself. There is such a thing as "colorism." I think that sometimes opportunities for medication may be a little non-forthcoming to certain groups. African-American groups may not have the access to them that we do in the larger group, or as easy access, I should say.