How have your relationships with family and friends changed since you were diagnosed?
My relationships are good. I didn't hide anything. I told them when I found out, when I was in the hospital. It's important to build a support system around you before you get sick. If you got sick right now, you should know you could call one person, and they know everybody to call. Don't assume family and friends will not love you. Most of the time, you will be quite surprised -- they come around and are there for you. If they're not, it's better to find out while you're healthy, than when you're ill. I tell people, "Take the power out of a secret: Tell it."
How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to someone?
I think you have to look at each person you tell on an individual basis: How important is that person in your life, how close are they to you? I'm a public person, so I've told it in magazines, newspapers, on TV. But that's not for everybody. Even when I speak to people now, I still sometimes get a little nervous. It's still like having to come out again when I'm standing in front of people saying I'm HIV positive. You have to begin to find those one or two whom you can tell, so it takes some of the anxiety out of it. If it's a really close person, you need to tell it, get it out of the way, and have faith that they can handle it.
What is the best response you have ever gotten from telling someone?
The best responses were times when I was ill. People showed up that I didn't expect to, just to be with me. I've been blessed with that. I've had people drive hundreds of miles to see me. I've been home and a friend came to me and said, "I want a set of keys to your house." And I said, "For what?" He said, "So that I can get in." And he just took over, and I sat back and laughed.
Also, I've had people come to say thank you because they've heard me speak, or watched me go through it.
What is the worst response?
The worst responses were in early days when people got judgmental. I knew they were just venting, and I was able to stand there and let them get it out of their system, which most people have a hard time doing.
I was speaking at one event, and a guy stood up and pointed his finger at me like he had a gun, squeezing the trigger, and waved at me to come outside. After I had finished speaking and greeting people, I went outside and stood across the street. My attitude was, I would die standing, but I wouldn't run and hide.
You still have people with negative responses. I've been blessed not to have it much because I'm very clear: If you want to judge me, then let's open up the doors, let's see what you're doing. I believe in the scriptures, which say, "Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself." It didn't say love your neighbor if they're HIV negative, or love your neighbor if they're straight. It just says, "Love your neighbor."
Also, a doctor told me in 1990, the first time I was hospitalized, "You will never walk again. You won't see Christmas." I said, "Who told you that?" He said, "That's my professional opinion." "Then I'm safe," I said, "because you can be wrong." He said, "I've seen this a hundred times before." I said, "I'm a hundred and one. I'm the one you haven't seen, and I'm telling you, I will walk." It wasn't easy. I struggled; I forced myself to get up. I had people hold me up, and let me wiggle, but be there to catch me if I fell.
Where do you think you get that strength?
Two places. One, my mother and grandmother were two very determined black women. Two, I started training in martial arts when I was 14 in a very traditional way with a Korean instructor. The mind-set was: You do not let anything defeat you. I studied meditation and yoga, which gave me inner strength to visualize and accomplish my goal. I would visualize myself standing and walking, just like when I was in a martial arts competition I saw myself going through and winning. Every time I stood up or took a step, I would go, "I win." Building that kind of attitude gets you through. And having strong faith is majorly important for me.
Where do you go for support?
I consciously work at having a strong support system around me. Church is part of it. I'm tight with my ministerial staff. People in my congregation, we're very open with each other. I have other friends, even out of state, and once in a while we call and talk to each other. I have one friend who's positive and also a therapist. We call each other up and go to lunch, and talk. Sometimes it's to vent, sometimes just to be in each other's presence.
Also, having a personal connection to God gets me through everything. When I see somebody who's been healed, I know I can be too. I call it obvious God. I tell people, "Look for God everywhere." I'm healed because God loves me, not because God is trying to punish me. That is how I am able to continue the journey, because I know that love will sustain me.
Do you feel accepted as a person with HIV?
How has your sex life changed since you became positive?
I don't know if it changed because I turned positive -- or I got older. No, just kidding. Even as public as I am, I have to go through making sure a person understands that I'm positive.
Do you have a policy about if or when you tell a sex partner that you're positive?
I tell early in the game. I don't believe in "We're going to be safe, and then I'm going to tell you." I like being in relationships -- I'm one of those hopeless romantics. My partner died three years ago, and I've just started dating again. Sex for me is a very small, but important, part of a relationship. I need to find out if I can connect with you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Do I like you in the morning? Do I want to go out with you? Those things are important to me before we get to sex.
Do you feel that if you practice safe sex, it's necessary to tell a sex partner that you are positive?
For me, yes. Some people think if it's just casual sex, and you're being safe, you don't really have to tell this person. I think it's a personal call. The most important thing is that you practice safe sex.
Did you make any New Year's resolutions?
No, I try to keep three projects in front of me, but no more. I put my deadlines on getting those three accomplished. They usually have long ranges, like the end of the year. When I finish one, or nearly finish, then I pick up one more.
What's the biggest adventure you've ever had?
I would say meditating in the pyramids of Egypt. And competing in the World Championships in Seoul, Korea, in tae kwon do. I was cocaptain of the team -- that was great. Winning Madison Square Garden, and hearing 20,000 people screaming at me -- that was exciting.
If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
I think my wish would be that all of humanity was able to rise to their highest level and see each other for who we truly are.
What books, movies or TV shows have had a big influence on you?
I am a PBS specialist. I like the Discovery Channel because it wakes you up to different parts of the world. I just finished writing a book!
What's the title?
Right now it is Reclaiming Your Divine Birthright. Hopefully that'll be coming out soon. But other than that, I unplug. When you live an intense life, it's important to make quiet time. I tell people, "Praying is talking to God and meditating is like listening to God -- sometimes you gotta be quiet so you can hear."
Anything else you'd like The Body's readers to know about you?
I enjoy life, I'm curious and I love people. If you love people, you will respect them -- and if you love life, you will protect it. If we learn to take care of our own lives, and be happy, that's going to create joy everywhere we go. Enjoy this life!
For more on Bishop Cheeks' ministry, see www.portofharlem.net/newsinnerlightministries.html.