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This Positive Life: An Interview With Robert Cohen

September 15, 2010

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Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Welcome to This Positive Life Video Series! We have with us Robert Cohen. Being diagnosed in 1986 in San Francisco -- the epicenter of the epidemic at that time -- Robert was convinced that he was going to die. He watched so many of his friends pass away, yet he stayed healthy and undetectable over the years, not knowing why. Then in 2000, Robert was told that he was a long-term nonprogressor and an elite controller -- an extremely rare group of people living with HIV for 20 to 25 years or more who have not yet experienced a severe loss of CD4 cells.

So let's start at the very beginning. When did you find out that you were HIV positive?


So in the dark old days?

In the dark old days. It was a few months after the first HIV tests were available. It took me probably six months to get up the courage to be tested. And there was a lot of stuff going on in my life at that time. I had the idea that I didn't want to miss any bit of information, as I sort of threaded my way through the rapids of my life.

And why did you think that you were at risk?

Oh, well, I had been having sex with men since I was 15.


And all the gay magazines and newspapers were talking about how there might be a gay cancer or GRID or something like that.

Sure, even the mainstream media was talking about, but definitely the local gay press was talking about it, my friends were talking about it, doctors were talking about it.

So you were seeing gay doctors?


Where were you living?

I was living in San Francisco in Noe Valley.

So the heart of the epidemic?

Yeah. Not far from The Castro. I just concentrated on work a lot.

After you found out?

Well even before.

Meaning just to deny that.

Exactly. To have something to do to not think about the monster in the room.

And at that point, there were a lot of monsters, because San Francisco was probably seeing daily deaths, so it was pretty bad.


"So months would pass and I would hear from someone, 'Did you know, so and so is sick? He is going into the hospital.' And then it would be a few days and this person was gone. That happened repeatedly."

So were people around you dying that you knew?

Yes, there were just countless people that I lost and oftentimes, at that stage, these were not people that I was really close to, but they were people who were kind of in my orbit, who I knew to some extent.

And one day they would be partying, it would seem. These weren't people who I saw frequently. So months would pass and I would hear from someone, "Did you know, so and so is sick? He is going into the hospital." And then it would be a few days and this person was gone. That happened repeatedly.

How old were you?

I was in my early 30s.

So it's not usual, in your 30s, to have all your friends dying.

Mortality is not something that one thinks about. Five or ten years before that, gosh I was a bartender in Boston for a couple of years right after college at a gay bar. We partied a lot, we played. By the time I came to San Francisco, I had done so much partying and sex.

When you say partying, do you include drugs in that?

Some, not a lot. Drinking and a little dope. But mostly having sex. Mostly it was pursuit of pleasure. You know, I was just really coming out when I went to Boston, and so it was the sort of the place where I first experienced being on my own and being able to do what I wanted to do without having to sneak around.

Where do you come from?

Around Atlanta, Georgia. The Deep South. But you know there is a lot of sex that goes in those places, but in those days we didn't talk about it. Southern boys, southern people, it's a warm climate; people don't wear a lot of clothes.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
More Personal Stories of HIV Long-Term Nonprogressors


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