Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, Washington, D.C., diagnosed in 1985
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 of major importance for me.
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