This Positive Life: Now Over 50, Ed Viera Reflects on HIV's Challenges and Lessons
April 16, 2013
"I'm doing damn good," says Ed Viera, Jr., who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. "I exercise, I eat right, I sleep, I don't smoke, I don't drink, and I don't do drugs." That's a far cry from Ed's youth in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he became HIV positive through unprotected sex in the early 1980s. "Every time I had sex, alcohol was always involved," he recalls. It's those early experiences that led Ed to become a substance abuse counselor, and an advocacy leader in his community. Supportive friends and his commitments to work and to living healthily have helped Ed through the toughest times in his 25-plus years living with HIV -- and though the challenges have been many, Ed says: "I'm never going to stop living."
How did you find out you were positive?
I was tested at the clinic on the Lower East Side in New York City back in 1987.
What made you decide to get tested?
Most of my close friends were dropping like flies, you know, at a time when we didn't have the triple combination therapy yet. I was scared. It's just out of sheer fear that I had to go and get tested. I knew I was infected probably since 1983.
What is your sexual orientation?
I identify myself as bisexual.
What was your reaction when you found out you were positive?
I was frozen and terrified. What I immediately started thinking about was the closest funeral home. At that time I thought HIV was a death sentence.
How did you get through it?
I had too many goals still to accomplish. I just didn't want to give up. I wanted to live no matter what. My quality of my life wasn't that important to me, I just wanted to live.
What helped you get through it?
My closest friends. Actually my closest friends are also HIV positive -- the friends that I have now. Whenever I'm depressed, I call them and they're there for me and they see me through it.
To be honest, I'm not used to being HIV positive. I guess I haven't quite accepted it yet. I know it's real but in the meantime all I have is just the support of my friends.
Who was the first person you told that you were positive, and how did they react?
The first person I told was a male friend and we are still friends -- oh mercy, for like a thousand years. Really like 25 years. He's a college professor and we were having a relationship and the moment I was diagnosed I picked up the phone and I told him to go get tested and he did. He was negative, which was a relief for me because just the thought of having someone else's life in my hands. ... Thank goodness he is still negative. He protected himself.
Was he supportive of you at the time?
Oh, absolutely. He's been my rock ever since I was diagnosed.
When did you tell your family?
I waited about a year to tell them because to be honest, despite all the information out there, they are very ignorant. They're very ignorant people. I pretty much anticipated what their reactions were going to be. And to this day they're convinced that I'm a heroin user and I got HIV because I was sharing needles. They also look at AIDS still as a gay disease and they do not accept my sexual orientation.
I had tried to talk to them over the years, but they decided to shut the doors to me. So I finally got to the point when I realized that all they are going to do is hurt me, so there is no place for them in my life.
One time, my mother actually told me that God was punishing me and that I got what I deserved. That made me isolate myself from other people even more, because I internalized what she said. But after awhile, I just got tired of being imprisoned by HIV. I got out there and I said, "Fine, if my family doesn't accept me there are other families out there that I can connect with. I'll make my own family." And that's what I did, I just moved on. Sometimes in life you have to dig deep within yourself to see how strong you are. The rejection from my family was that test.
Did you ever get the opportunity to speak with the person who you suspect infected you?
No. I didn't get to talk to the person. I was infected when I was in the U.S. Marine Corps. I can pretty much pinpoint it. I was with a male prostitute in the Philippines and from that encounter I caught gonorrhea and I got it treated. But as the months went by, I started feeling funny. When I got to our main base in San Diego, back to camp, I was given a blood test, and I got a call later on that said there "something funny in your blood and I can't tell exactly what it is." You know, the Marine Corps is so homophobic in many ways -- they didn't ask, I didn't tell. Back then, that was his way of telling me that it could be this "gay disease that was going around."
But unfortunately when I went back to the Philippines I couldn't find the man to disclose or say anything. At that time also, I would be drinking so much I just wouldn't recognize him, to tell you the truth.
Shifting gears, how do you think that HIV/AIDS is perceived in your community now?
There's an increased level of acceptance right now, but in my experience here in East Harlem people are not that comfortable with it. They might tell you that. "Yes, I know so-and-so is positive and I'm OK with it," but then I look at the faces that they make and their body language and I can tell they're uncomfortable with it.
The catharsis that surrounded HIV/AIDS until the advent of the triple combination therapy in 1996 has subsided as people have become better educated and realized that it's now a chronic manageable disease. Yet the stigma, ignorance, and discrimination are still around as well, albeit in a veiled form. Having won a few battles doesn't mean the war is over; and we shouldn't become complacent just because the disease is no longer considered a death sentence by most people.
If you had one message for the Hispanic community in terms of HIV, what would it be?
Know your status and practice safer sex even if you're negative.
I now want to talk about disclosing. What advice would you give to others about disclosing their status?
If the desire to engage in sex is mutual, and you're dealing with a trustworthy individual whom you've known for a while, the responsible thing to do is to carefully disclose. As for everyone else, it's none of their business. There's no need to go around volunteering information that can be used against you, even by people who claim to be your friends. Unless, perhaps, you're trying to take advantage of them through emotional blackmail. That's outright immoral.
In your own dating life, what have some of the reactions been from men and women when you have disclosed your status to them?
Several years ago, when I was a serial monogamist looking for love in all the wrong places, I took my chances with disclosure. Some people were supportive and agreed to play it safe. Others expected -- if not demanded -- honesty, but once I gave it they didn't know what to do with it. A few women got misty eyed, a couple of men almost dropped their dentures in disbelief and had no clue how to continue the conversation. I made it easy for them by leaving the scene. As a self-respecting man, I'm way past the point of making down-payments for other people's acceptance.
At this point when you're dating somebody, when do you usually disclose to them?
I try to develop a loose friendship just to get to know each other, with no sexual expectations at first, because I know that disclosure will be right around the corner. This has gotten quite tiresome. Nowadays I have straight male friends who, even though they sense there's something different about me, are so secure in their masculinity that sex between us is never going to be an option. That's a relief. If the individual, however, is gay or bisexual and the attraction is mutual, the best way to show I care is to disclose. I've built some long-lasting friendships this way.
Have you found love since you tested positive?
I thought I did. The problem has always been that deep inside the other individual wants a homosexual relationship along heterosexual lines. I couldn't deal with being accused of sleeping with women, the hissy jealousy fits, and the Spanish TV melodrama complete with police intervention in the middle of the night.
"Maybe at the age of 53 I'm subconsciously looking for a custom-fit in an off-the-rack world. But I'm OK with that because I'm alone by choice."
Maybe at the age of 53 I'm subconsciously looking for a custom-fit in an off-the-rack world. But I'm OK with that because I'm alone by choice.
In addition, ever since I was a child I found safety in solitude and pleasure in not having to explain myself to anyone. There's nothing better than coming home late at night after working a double shift and having no one nag and yap about your whereabouts.
Can you tell me about your work on the HIV Planning Council and your substance abuse counseling training? When did you get involved with that?
The two of them happened at the same time in September 2007. The mayor appointed me on the HIV Planning Council and when I received the appointment via mail I almost passed out. [Laughs] You're appointed by the mayor for a term of two years, not to exceed four years. Actually being appointed to the planning council just confirmed that what I wanted to do was a real, great thing. That also gave me the strength to get out there and try to educate people and see if I could do something to stem the tide of HIV infection.
As far as the substance abuse counseling training -- whenever you're talking about HIV and AIDS, substance abuse seems to go hand-in-hand. Also, when you have HIV and substance abuse there is also homelessness trailing not far behind. To help the HIV/AIDS community and to help myself also, I started training to become a CASAC (Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor) at the same time I was appointed to the HIV Planning Council.
My work with the NYC Health and Human Services Planning Council ended in 2010. At the end of last year, I took a break from substance abuse counseling to pursue a master's degree in public administration at Metropolitan College of New York. Tired of being in the trenches and having so little to show for it, I went for something that helped me acquire transferrable skills. With this degree I'll be able to command a higher salary, relocate if necessary, and have the opportunity to call the shots instead of having someone else control my life and my health. I want to be in charge for a change.
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Positive Life.
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