Move over, Obama and Oprah: Here are some folks who are among the most inspiring African Americans you'll ever meet. They may not all be rich or famous (yet!), but each possesses something better -- courage. They're all fighting the good fight every day against HIV by overcoming their own worst fears and taking on stigma, ignorance and injustice.
Whether you're dealing with a new diagnosis, hoping to become an activist or contemplating disclosure before sex, you'll find all kinds of advice -- and, better yet, acceptance and self-validation -- here.
At 20, Tree Alexander was barely out of his teens when he tested positive for HIV. Tree had to grow up fast, educate himself about a disease he knew very little about and seek treatment despite having no health insurance. This blogger, public speaker and HIV advocate discusses the importance of adhering to medications, never giving up hope and educating his peers.
"Anonymous" had been living what he admits was a "reckless" life of sex and substance abuse when he was diagnosed with HIV. Instead of changing his life, or dealing with his HIV, he decided to enjoy the moment. After 15 years of living in denial, he turned his life around and committed himself to making a difference. He became a substance abuse counselor with a Chicago HIV organization.
Reverend Frederick Batiste
As a veteran, the Reverend Frederick Batiste of New Orleans had been prepared to fight battles. But nothing could have prepared him for this: a battle with HIV since 1983. Frederick candidly discusses disclosing his status at his church in the early days of HIV; his journey with different drug regimens; and the joy of making it to his 50s.
James Bender, a heterosexual former U.S. Navy soldier, believed that HIV was a gay white male disease. But when James tested positive in the summer of 1987, he realized that HIV can affect anyone. This father of one and HIV advocate talks about the stigma and discrimination that face people living with HIV in the U.S. South and why he never grows tired of talking about the epidemic.
D'Jaun Black had been with his boyfriend for three and a half years when he found out the man he loved was cheating on him. Soon after, just shy of his 20th birthday, D'Jaun tested positive. Since his HIV diagnosis, D'Jaun has dedicated himself to supporting HIV-positive youth and encouraging young people who don't know their status to get tested. His greatest wish is "to continue to do the things that I'm doing for many, many, many years."
For Regina Brandon, HIV was the catalyst that eventually lead her to re-examine her choices, which in turn motivated her to leave behind a nomadic life of sex, drugs and crime. Now Regina lives in Los Angeles, where she is an HIV activist, a public speaker and the founder of a local church-based ministry educating her community about HIV.
With a 27-year history of drinking, using drugs and sleeping with hundreds of women, Greg Braxton's AIDS diagnosis in 1994 came as no surprise. At the time of his diagnosis, he was still struggling with his crack cocaine addiction, which often caused him to neglect his meds. This destructive cycle went on for several years, leading to many hospital visits and Greg developing multidrug resistance.
After being hospitalized and close to death, Marvelyn Brown, then only 19 years old, found out that she was HIV positive. But she made a choice early on to speak out to educate her community about HIV. Since then, Marvelyn has written a book, won an Emmy and been featured in countless magazines and television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Larry Bryant could have pursued a career in professional football if he'd wanted to -- HIV or no HIV. But instead, he decided to help improve the lives of those living with HIV. This long-term survivor of HIV now presses palms for the HIV advocacy group Housing Works, meeting with politicians to push for better funding and greater support for positive people throughout the U.S.
George Burgess, a father of four, has been through it all -- including a heroin addiction -- and somehow survived without losing faith. He says, "I look at AIDS as an acronym: Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space." And service is what he does. He volunteered for years at local AIDS service organizations before being hired as an HIV treatment educator in 2001. He also speaks publically about HIV around the U.S.
Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks
Many black religious figures have been slow to address the HIV epidemic in black America, but Bishop Cheeks is not one of them. Although he joined the ministry in 1982, it was his own diagnosis in 1985 that ushered in his own HIV advocacy. Since then, he has helped turn the church into a source of support for those affected by HIV and a place to educate the community about the epidemic.
As a 17-year veteran of the Chicago police department and the mother of eight children, Lois Crenshaw knows how to roll with the punches. That may be why, despite being shocked by an HIV diagnosis at the age of 55 after she'd been raped, Lois has become a leader and a role model for older women with HIV. Lois talks about coping with her diagnosis, her battle with depression and stigma in the black church.
When Ron Crowder tested positive in jail back in 1991, he wasn't surprised. Being an injection drug user who shared needles, he knew he was at risk. Yet, despite being diagnosed at a time when AZT was the only medication available, Ron never lost hope. He is now the executive director of Street Works in Nashville. In this interview, Ron talks about the importance of giving back and educating Nashville's African-American community about HIV.
When Brian Datcher was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, his CD4 count was only 62. He lost both a partner of 10 years and an older brother to AIDS, so he vowed to commit to his treatment so that he could live on and make a difference. "HIV/AIDS has made me realize that you must not take this life for granted. You must know that life is a gift and you must take care of that gift."
When Lycia Davis tested positive in 1992, instead of taking control of her health, she listened to her husband and believed that her test results were wrong. Overtime, Lycia stopped taking her medicine and saw her health deteriorate. After getting tested again a few years later, she finally accepted the truth. Lycia discusses her battle with drug addiction, leaving her abusive marriage and how she came to terms with HIV.
Marcia Dorsey got a good education and a good job; never drank or did drugs; and stayed in one monogamous relationship for many years. After being diagnosed with HIV, she first asked herself, "Why me?" But after educating herself about the virus, she began to say, "Well, why not me?"
Teniecka Hannah trusted her boyfriend of two years, and thought he was monogamous, like she was. Then she tested positive for HIV. It took Teniecka a full year to wrap her mind around the news. Her family also had a difficult time coping with it, but now they're her biggest source of support. "I am especially thankful, honored, and blessed to have an opportunity to help and not just sit back," Teniecka muses. She recently got married and is now Teniecka Drake, mother of three.
Millicent Y. Foster
"I've been ridiculed and criticized because of my HIV status," writes Louisiana resident Millicent Foster; "But that has just made me more determined." That determination has led this grandmother of two to become a committed HIV community educator and volunteer. Here, Millicent writes her own story of facing addiction and tragic loss, turning her life onto a different path -- and drawing from family and faith for support.
When Sharon Gambles was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, she knew nothing about the disease. To make matters worse, during this time, there were very few resources for women living with HIV -- Sharon felt completely alone and lived in denial for years. This recovering addict, mother of three and out lesbian shares her journey to sobriety and how she started to love herself again.
David Garner has come a long way from when he was diagnosed with HIV while serving in the U.S. Navy. Being HIV positive has made him intensely aware of the important things in his life: his health, his time and his loved ones. As a case manager at SEARCH, a homeless facility in Houston, he now helps to connect HIV-positive people to the services they need.
When Lolisa got tested for HIV in 2004, she was certain that she was HIV negative. So when her results came back positive, she was utterly shocked. It was a lot for a 17-year-old to take in, but the more she learned about HIV, the more she didn't let her diagnosis stop her from living. Lolisa, a proud mother of a baby boy, talks to us about coping with her diagnosis, becoming an HIV educator/public speaker, and being in a mixed-status relationship with a man.
For Keith Green, an African-American gay man, the road to self-acceptance was long and difficult, but the world is a better place for him having gotten there. His potent sense of humor is one of many weapons the talented Mr. Green brings to the battle against HIV. Keith's relationship with God has helped him understand that he is ultimately responsible for his life, his health and his happiness.
Jeffery A. Haskins
"It became actually my career, what I wanted to be, and do," says Jeffery A. Haskins of the HIV work he's been involved with since the epidemic's earliest days. His path was not always so clear -- he'd studied business, accounting and theater management, and when an accountant position opened up at the newly formed Minority Task Force on AIDS, his journey began. But that journey was not simply as an activist, but as an activist of color -- part of a group often overlooked in histories of early HIV activism -- and, by 1993, as a person living with HIV himself.
Read part one
Read part two
In 1999, Bernard Jackson's wife passed away in the hospital weeks after being given an AIDS diagnosis. That's how Bernard learned he was HIV positive -- but he was so consumed with shock, loss and caring for his young daughter that years went by before he was able to process his own diagnosis. "[Sharing my story] was how I started building myself back up ... and seeing that what I thought was the end for me was actually a beginning," he reports today.
"For some people I've talked to, HIV changes their lifestyle, how they used to live -- now they feel healthier and are not abusing themselves anymore. That's what happened to me," says HIV advocate Precious Jackson. For years after her HIV diagnosis, Precious was angry, upset and ashamed. When she finally sought out the support she needed, her life changed.
Monica Johnson is from the small town of Columbia, Louisiana, but you may recognize her from the gripping HIV-focused documentary deepsouth. Her organization, HEROES, like many other small and struggling rural agencies, serves people living with HIV who might otherwise not have anywhere else to go.
"I thought of HIV as a death sentence that only weak people got," Terry Johnson recalls. "When I got [my diagnosis], I had to rethink my perception of what HIV was." Once Terry made the decision to educate himself about HIV, this former U.S. National Guardsman realized that he could live a long, healthy and productive life with the virus.
When Fortunata Kasege was diagnosed with HIV while pregnant with her daughter, she had just emigrated from Tanzania to the U.S. "I kept saying that I was going to die ... because that's what I know happens when you get diagnosed in my country," Fortunata remembers. This community advocate is very much alive, and spreading her message of HIV awareness. Her daughter was born HIV negative.
Joyce Turner Keller
Archbishop Joyce Turner Keller never thought that HIV would ever happen to her -- she was a "good Christian" woman. But then everything changed when she was raped and later diagnosed with AIDS. This advocate and grandmother of three discusses why giving up was never an option; the importance of educating the faith community about the epidemic; and her own non-profit, Aspirations.
Patricia Kelly learned that she was HIV positive while serving time in jail. Convinced that she was going to die, Patricia hid the fact that she was positive and spiraled deeply into her drug use. This mother of three talks about her 20-year journey in and out of the prison system; overcoming the stigma that stopped her from seeking mental health care; and the peace that disclosing her status has brought her.
David P. Lee
David P. Lee did not expect to be diagnosed with HIV. After all, he was an HIV training manager. "I had to deal with a lot of self-imposed shame and guilt about 'knowing better,'" David recalls. He has since realized that "Nobody has to feel ashamed. ... When people ask me how I got HIV, my usual response is that, 'I got it by being a human doing human things.'"
"The secret to my survival is that I want to live," says HIV advocate, mother and long-term HIV survivor Michelle Lopez. Back in 1991, with her newborn baby in tow, Michelle left behind an abusive partner who, she later learned, knowingly put her at risk for HIV. Today, Michelle is a strong voice for her Caribbean and African-American community in the fight against HIV -- and she's raised her daughter, Raven, to be an advocate just like her.
"I feel like a human being," says Raven Lopez, "and there is nothing else that is different about me." Raven is the same as any other teenager -- she just happens to have been born with HIV. Raven's mother, Michelle Lopez, told her she was HIV positive when she was 6 -- and with the support of her family, her HIV status has become such an accepted part of her life that Raven sees it as little more than a footnote.
Oliver W. Martin III
In 1986, when Oliver W. Martin III was diagnosed with HIV, then called GRID, he wasn't alone. His younger brother, who was also same-gender-loving, was diagnosed at the same time. But for a decade, the two of them told almost no one. Only when effective HIV treatment became available did they share their diagnoses with their large, tightly-knit family. Since that time, Oliver's dedicated himself to furthering HIV prevention and sexuality education in faith communities.
Joyce McDonald practices many arts -- from painting and sculpture to poetry and music to motherhood and ministry. In a way, her life has also become its own work of art. Her story of sex work, drug abuse and redemption -- as well as her battle with HIV and hepatitis, which she very nearly lost -- is as much a piece of art as anything she's created with paint or clay.
Peter and Kathy McLoyd
Serodiscordant: It's not a word you hear every day. It's a relationship in which one partner is HIV positive and the other partner is negative. It's the reality for many couples out there, including Peter and Kathy McLoyd, who had been longtime friends and colleagues until 2004, when they began dating and got married -- all in the same year.
In 2009, this mother of five was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with H1N1 influenza and HIV, with a CD4 count of zero. Even though the doctors basically sent her home to die, Rachelle recovered with the help of medicine, support and her faith. A year later, this newly married church leader talks about cheating death, why ignorance is killing us and why she started her own group to build women's self-esteem.
As a U.S. drill sergeant during his military career, Robert Mintz chose to inspire his charges by example rather than intimidation. When he was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, he once again chose to inspire people by example, sharing his status openly and becoming an advocate for others living with HIV. Robert works to "put a face on this disease, and show that I not only can survive but also live happily and well."
"[Ministers] Farwell [sic], Farrakhan -- they say HIV is a curse for gays. I know that was a lie because I'm still here," says Joy Morris-Hightower, a transgender woman and longtime HIV survivor. Beaten as a child for wanting to be female, Joy first found support for her transgender identity on the streets. Joy is now in recovery and speaking out about transphobia and HIV stigma.
Pamela Neely is a minority within the HIV community: Not only is she a lesbian, she's also an "elite controller," which means that she has been HIV positive for almost 20 years and her CD4 count has remained high without any treatment. Pamela's unique status has inspired her to learn as much as she can about the virus. She also shares her knowledge within her high-risk Brooklyn neighborhood.
Antron Olukayode describes himself as an "artivist" -- a blend of artist and activist. After a sexual assault at the hands of his boyfriend at the age of 19 left him HIV positive, he experienced alienation and homelessness. However, his inherent creativity allowed him to spin these experiences into art and he is now the author of two volumes of poetry, each dealing with a different part of his life, but each centered around his diagnosis and subsequent life with HIV. And, he is no longer homeless.
An HIV-positive, married mother of two (her husband and both her children are HIV negative), Marcya Owens has been a vocal advocate for women and African Americans with HIV for more than a decade. Having given birth to a pair of healthy children, Marcya's activism often concentrates heavily on pregnant, HIV-positive women; drawing from personal experience, she has a wealth of advice to give.
Christopher Quarles tested HIV positive after he noticed the person with whom he was in a relationship dodging questions about HIV status. After being positive for almost five years, and undetectable for three, Christopher left home in South Carolina because of a broken family dynamic, but knows a lot about making his own family structure. He is a member of the House of Khan in New York City's vibrant ballroom scene, and walks runway under the guidance of his mentor, Luna. He came to Manhattan barely able to afford the subway, but now enjoys an independent life with friends around him and his dog always by his side.
If an HIV diagnosis is considered to be a "tough pill to swallow," then imagine that a diagnosis of HIV-2 would be like trying to swallow the whole bottle at once. That's what happened to Martell Randolph in 2000. Because it is so rare, many health care providers were clueless about how to treat it, and about how it differs from HIV-1. Even today, many still are.
Though Tonya was never mad at the father of her children for having unprotected sex outside their relationship, which led to him and then her becoming HIV positive, she does regret that their kids have lost their father. But with lots of laughter, a healthy relationship and her three teenage children, she's able to fight past "pill fatigue," find many ways to live well, and tackle the "mental challenge" of HIV head on.
David Robertson spent of most of his college days as what he would describe as "undecided" -- but not about his major. He never categorized himself as gay or straight, and continues to defy categorization. However, he had to learn the hard way -- through an HIV diagnosis -- that you can't judge whether someone is HIV positive or HIV negative by whether or not they look healthy.
Justin B. Smith
HIV advocate and blogger Justin B. Smith admits he used to live "a very dangerous life." But since his diagnosis in 2006, the former heavy drinker and drug user has turned his life around. Justin walks us through some of the key moments in his life, including meeting his future husband, his experiences dealing with stigma and ignorance, and his stint in the U.S. military as an openly gay man.
Evany Turk has an unusual centerpiece on her dining room table: a bucket of condoms. "I didn't used to be that kind of mother before -- but now, I know that if someone had talked to me when I was a teenager ... I possibly would not have become HIV positive," she says. So she talks openly with her seven kids and their friends, encouraging them to ask her questions, and she always answers honestly.
Had it not been for HIV, Tim'm West might not have made any real contributions to the world -- at least, not according to him. En route to a philosophy Ph.D. when he was diagnosed, Tim'm became HIV positive while in a monogamous relationship. After he learned he was positive, he began to pursue a career as an artist and activist.
Despite showing numerous symptoms related to HIV/AIDS and having multiple hospital trips, like so many others, Cassandra Whitty fell through the testing gaps, and was misdiagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Cassandra admits she never really thought that HIV could happen to her. This mother and grandmother shares her experiences grappling with her diagnosis, how disclosing made all the difference, and why being an HIV/AIDS advocate is her life's calling.
Leslie and Andrea Williams
In 1993, after a brief stint in jail, Leslie, a recovering intravenous drug user, tested positive for HIV. While most people would have focused on themselves, Leslie was more concerned about having to tell his wife, Andrea, who also tested positive. The couple talks to us about the benefits of support groups and how Life Support, the HBO film based on Andrea's life, has given them a larger platform from which to educate people about the epidemic.
Black AIDS Institute founder and chief executive Phill Wilson has worked tirelessly for years to put HIV on the agenda in the black community. Whether he is on CNN, working with black media publications or speaking out in public, he has tenaciously educated African Americans about HIV for almost 30 years. What makes Phill's efforts even more inspiring is that he has been living with HIV since the early '80s.
Inspired? We have more inspiring stories!
Lois Bates, a Chicago-based transgender woman, always knew that she was different from the other people around her, but it never stopped her from being her authentic self. This former U.S. Navy officer opens up about dealing with homophobia and transphobia; coping with HIV, diabetes and renal failure; and the importance of giving back to her community.
Not many people knew that Mel Byrd had HIV. Not because he was afraid to tell anybody -- it's just that there was nobody to tell, he'd say. A self-described loner, the thoughtful, well-spoken Texas native had always turned inward for solace and understanding. "More and more recently, I've felt very much that I don't want to be anonymous anymore," Mel mused in this 2006 interview. After Mel's death from heart failure in June 2008, the truly heartfelt comments left on his profile by friends and colleagues show that he'd begun to accomplish that goal.
"I fight the good fight and hope that others learn and grow from my struggles, my failures and my accomplishments," Shelton Jackson once wrote in an update to this profile. His HIV diagnosis drove him to work harder, strive farther and accomplish more in the 31 years of his life than he ever could have imagined. The poet, author, activist and founder of a publishing firm needed years to come to terms with his HIV status, but once he finally did, it was as though his life opened up before him. In the words of a close friend, when Shelton passed away in March 2009, the world lost "a man of compassion, an agent of change and a loving father."