The Challenges of Medicaid and HIV in Rural Mississippi
July 31, 2012
I have a picture that I want to show. This is what I looked like a week after I got out of the hospital. It was taken at my sister's house on the 4th of July. You can see the date down here.
Hold it up a little bit more so you can see the date. OK, there you go.
My sister asked my uncle to take this picture. Later, she told me that she wanted him to take this picture so I could see how far I've come with this epidemic. Basically, I carry it around to show to people that may not be so optimistic to let them know that if I can survive it, they can, and that God saved me for a reason. I could have been dead. So he saved me for a reason.
Indeed. It sounds as if, once you started to share your diagnosis with your family, or they started to find out in their own ways, you started to have a sense that you wanted to be a voice of someone living with HIV.
How did you first get involved in doing that kind of work? Did it start within your family and branch out?
It started with the clinic I was going to. The social worker there, she was asking if I would go to certain events that they had when they test. So I started out just helping them out, not being a voice. And she kept asking me, "You ready to speak?" I was like, "No." I was still afraid. I knew I wanted to do this, but I still was afraid.
People, even in a little, small town, were supportive. Later, I got the job with the organization I work for, My Brother's Keeper. It gave me a little bigger scale to work with. When there were times that people wanted someone living with HIV to speak, I would speak.
What is it like living with, and working in, HIV in Mississippi? Because, in general, in Mississippi there are a lot of challenges with funding and with access to care. I just wonder what your experience has been with that.
There are a lot of challenges in Mississippi. First of all, it's because, being one of the Bible Belt states, people don't like to talk. The conversation of HIV or AIDS, they don't want to talk about it. I think that has a lot to do with homosexuality.
Now, a lot of people in Mississippi still think that it's a gay man's disease. And they don't want to talk about homosexuality. They still want to condemn homosexuality, and still judge people because of their sexual orientation. So they don't want to talk about HIV or AIDS. Some of them -- not all, but some -- still have the sense that it's punishment, like in the '80s when it first came around.
Health care-wise, if you look at our Medicare and Medicaid programs, they only allow you to get five medications. So, if you're HIV positive, like I am, and you have other chronic diseases, like I do, you can only get five medications. So even if you've got four [pills] for HIV and you may have to have two [pills] for diabetes or something else like hypertension, and you're on Medicaid, it's only going to take care of five of the meds. For people that may be at very low income, it's like, "OK. I either take my meds and not eat or eat and not take my meds." So that's one thing.
Because Mississippi is a rural area, people that live out in rural areas in Mississippi, they have a challenge of transportation, getting to care. Some people have to travel 50 or 40 miles just to get to a clinic. I think we're at shortage; I think we need more HIV specialists. You have a lot of people that have been pushed into it because of the rate of infections. So I think we need more specialists.
In some cases, we need more nurses and doctors and social workers with manners, to be more cordial and sensitive to what's going on, and to the people that they are seeing.
I hear a lot of grounding in spirituality in your life. How has that jived with talking about HIV? Also, are you open about being a man who has sex with men when you're talking in churches and with your family? Talk a little bit about how that's been, even back before you were diagnosed with HIV.
Before I was diagnosed with HIV, I was open with my family, as far as my sexual orientation. Actually, I honestly didn't come out until I was 32 years old. But I knew when I was a child that I was interested in, or liked, men. I went through the period of teenage years wanting to kill myself, because I'm different. You know, "I'm the only one in this town that's different. I'm the only one that likes boys." And hearing that it's so wrong, "You're going to go to Hell," and all that good stuff, I thought about suicide.So I got married, thinking, "OK, if I get married to this woman, then those feelings of me wanting to be with a man will go away." I was married for seven years. Of course, I didn't cheat on her with a man -- or a woman, as a matter of fact -- but I still had those feelings.
When my ex-wife and I finally separated, a few years later I came out to my mom. Being a mother, she was like, "What are you doing being gay?" I'm like, "La, la, la, la, la."
And she went, "The Bible, dah, dah, dah."
I said, "Well, there are a lot of things that the Bible says that the people are doing."
Then she was like, "Oh, boy, I knew all along. I love you regardless. You're my son." So that gave me support, but I still was kind of shut in. I felt better because mom knew. I think that's during the time when I met my partner. He's the only one that my mom has ever met, as far as me saying, "This is my partner." And they were crazy about him.
I was living in Texas. When we traveled to Mississippi, they fell in love with him instantly. Even after he and I split up, he would leave Texas and go visit my folks. I'm like, "I'm not there; why are you there?" But once the family found out, then it was OK. It was no judgment. I don't know what they said behind my back, but they didn't treat me any differently.
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