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This Positive Life: An Interview With Ron Crowder

August 24, 2010

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It sounds like you've overcome the stigma of HIV. Have you overcome the stigma of being previously incarcerated?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

"My life is an open book. You know: hey, I'm a drug addict; and hey, I'm HIV positive. So, you know, deal with it."

Which is greater, do you think? I know it's hard to measure. Or are they equal?

I guess, to me, I don't let anything stop me. I don't know if I'm weird. I don't know. I've just always been this kind of person that's been open. And, just, my life is an open book. You know: hey, I'm a drug addict; and hey, I'm HIV positive. So, you know, deal with it.

Do a lot of people think you're gay?

No.

Well, meaning, because of the HIV.

Yeah. No, no. I mean, and that's another misnomer about being HIV positive. When I do presentations, the first thing people ask me: How did I get infected? And my question will still be to them: How do you think I got infected? And nobody ever says gay. So, I don't know. I mean, I don't know.

But do you think the source of a lot of the stigma related to HIV, particularly in the African-American community, is the homophobia?

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Yes, I do. I do. And the reason: I think that the media didn't do a great job in the beginning. And people are still stuck in that beginning -- what they saw, what they heard, always. I even remember, when I first heard about it, you know, my first thing was, I'm not gay, I'm not messing with any gay people. You know? So I'm not going to get it.

Then, the next thing they came out with: OK, now we're seeing it amongst IV drug users. OK, I had to rethink that then, you know. And I had taken an HIV test before that came back negative. And I was like, oh, God, I got that.

And I went to jail that time, and I had never even thought about it anymore, in between the first time I took the test and the time I was incarcerated.

But you didn't stop the risks.

No, no. Did not stop the risks.

But there was no outreach, either, to you. There was no prevention advocacy.

None whatsoever.

Now I understand you're doing that kind of work.

Yes.

So you're going to shooting galleries, and you're trying to help people.

I do exactly the work that needed to be done.

For you.

"People ask me all the time, 'Why you work so hard? Why you work so much? Take a vacation.' And I say, 'Listen. If I can save one person from becoming HIV infected, that has a ripple effect.' Because if you save one person, you, in fact, save several people."

For me, yes.

So it must feel really gratifying. You're saving yourself, kind of.

Yes. Yes. Yes. And it is hard work, but you're right. People ask me all the time, "Why you work so hard? Why you work so much? Take a vacation." And I say, "Listen. If I can save one person from becoming HIV infected, that has a ripple effect." Because if you save one person, you, in fact, save several people. Because then that one person don't infect somebody. So it has that ripple effect.

So what tip would you give to someone who's recently diagnosed with HIV? What would be your advice to them?

"Your chances of getting run over by an 18-wheeler truck is greater than you dying of HIV. Take care of yourself. Change some of your behaviors. Take good care of yourself. And you probably will live forever."

Hey, this is not a death sentence anymore. It's almost a chronic illness now. Your chances of getting run over by an 18-wheeler truck is greater than you dying of HIV. Take care of yourself. Change some of your behaviors. Take good care of yourself. And you probably will live forever.

One other question I wanted to ask you was about denialism. I know that, in certain communities, a lot of people say HIV was invented by the government, or that Magic Johnson was cured, or all kinds of stuff.

You know -- and I get that a lot -- and what I tell them is, "Listen. There is a lot of things that we don't know about HIV, but here are the things that we do. So let's stick to the facts. This is what we do know. This is how you get infected." I don't know where it came from, and that's not my job. All I know is that it is here. And this is what we need to do about it. This is what we have to do to protect ourselves. Education is our best tool. Prevention -- that's our way out now.

So you don't get involved in the arguments.

No I don't get into the debate because, hey, people are going to think what they want to think. So I'm not going to argue with them forever, because after the argument, they're still going to think . . ..

How common is it, do you think?

Very. Very. Hear it all the time. And I tell them, "Listen. I don't know where it came from."

Do you tell them you're taking treatment?

Oh, yes.

And you tell them you're doing OK?

Yes.

Do you think that's convincing to them?

Oh, yeah, because they see me. They see me. I have friends tell me all the time, "Man, you just look too healthy to have . . .." And I have full-blown AIDS, and been had it since '96. "Well, there's no such thing as . . ." [they say].

When you say you have full-blown AIDS, why? What was your initial CD4? It was 500. But did you have . . . ?

Oh, yeah. It had dropped down to 195 that one time.

And did you have opportunistic infections?

Never had. Never had any opportunistic . . ..

So it's a little legal point. You were 5 beneath 200, and that gave you the AIDS diagnosis.

Yeah. Yeah. And once you get an AIDS diagnosis, you always have it; you don't go back to being HIV. So.

Right. Even if you're pretty healthy.

No matter how healthy you are.

And then I guess I wanted to talk to you about, one thing before we end, is the disclosure. How was it? And where was the first time you told someone else that you were HIV positive?

It may be Atlanta.

And what did they say? Who was it?

I told my family.

Who? Your mother or your father?

My mother, my father -- immediately, once I found out. Now, back then, I was so open I had to kind of back off a little bit. Because I do remember going into treatment and disclosing -- into alcohol and drug treatment -- and the people there kind of started, like, "OK, we don't want to be in the room with him," and all that. And at that time, I think I kind of felt a little of that stigma.

In the recovery places, is that still a problem? That kind of stigma?

Well, see, I don't know. But it's because people don't disclose and they're not as open as I was back then.

I think it's . . . still, in the recovery world, I think HIV is still not really discussed.

No, I don't think it is, either.

Even though that's a population that's at huge risk.

Right. Right. I think I was a little unique in being kind of open way back then. And I think that's what has helped me and kept me healthy all these years.

That's great. Thank you so much for talking with us, and for sharing your story. I hope a lot of people write to you, and share their stories.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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