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This Positive Life: An Interview With James Bender

December 3, 2010

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Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us James Bender. In the late '80s, James, a heterosexual former Navy soldier living in rural Mississippi, believed what most Americans thought at that time: HIV was a gay white male disease. But James tested positive in the summer of 1987, and he quickly realized that this epidemic affected everyone. Instead of choosing to live in silence about his status, he decided to speak out and educate his community. This father and AIDS advocate talks candidly to us about the difficulty of being one of the first African-American men to test positive in his county; the stigma and discrimination facing people living with HIV in the South; and why he never grows tired of talking about HIV.

Let's start from the beginning. When did you find out you were HIV positive?

Aug. 15, 1987.

And so when were you tested? Why did you decide to get tested?

Well, I became sick with a fever of 100-plus for about two weeks, and it never would break. So I went to the doctor. And they ran a series of tests on me for about three weeks, and finally, they asked me: Could they do an HIV test?

And what did you say?

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"Sure, I guess."

Did you think you were at risk?

I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what. With the way my body was feeling, I said, "Why not?"

And so you got the results, and they said, "OK, James. You have HIV." What did you think?

Well, the first thing that hit my mind was: "Why me?" But then I thought about it: "Why not me?" Again, I thought about the lifestyle that I lived before. So it made me think.

What were the things that you were doing?

Well, I was very promiscuous. Sex -- I was having unprotected sex with women, and some of them were one-night stands. Some of them, I never saw again.

So you weren't too surprised. So you identify; you're a heterosexual man.

Right.

The way that the media talks about HIV, it doesn't necessarily include straight men in that conversation, especially during the time that you tested positive. So did you even think that straight men could even contract HIV?

Well, no. Because, like you were saying, when it was in the early years, they were saying it was a white, gay, male disease. So I knew I wasn't gay; and I wasn't white...

So you thought you were OK.

Right.

What did you do after your diagnosis?

Well, I went and took an HIV/AIDS 101 class, educated myself. And then I just started educating people around me.

"I stayed depressed, probably, for a couple months. Then I decided that I'd get educated; I could either fight the disease, or let it take me out. And I decided to fight it."

Were you depressed initially? Sad?

Yeah. I stayed depressed, probably, for a couple months. Then I decided that I'd get educated; I could either fight the disease, or let it take me out. And I decided to fight it.

So were you just scared, "I'm going to die? There's nothing I can do."

No, not really. Getting that diagnosis made me discover my faith, and then I just turned it over to God. It was another three years before I started medication.

So you took AZT?

I took AZT in the '90s. I started in '90 and took it till '95, when it gave me neuropathy so bad.

So when you were diagnosed, who did you disclose to?

Well, no, because I told everybody.

You told everybody. And you lived at this point where? In Mississippi?

I lived in the Deep South, near Hattiesburg, which was a very country-like town. And I was probably one of the first blacks to test positive there. And it was kind of hard at first. But then I had to fight a lot of discrimination and I had a lot of adversity.

In what way? What discrimination did you have to deal with?

I saw how my ancestors felt. But I felt like nobody wanted to be around me. People, when I'd go to their house, you could smell the Clorox. Or, where everybody else got china, I got a paper plate.

They were afraid.

Right. Because they weren't educated, but once I educated them, it changed.

This was '87, Deep South. Stigma central. How did you even have the courage to be able to educate people?

Well, I promised my dad. I told him what had happened and he said, "Well son, [you need to] educate yourself so you can educate others so they won't have to go through what you went through." That was probably the driving force, because I definitely wanted to learn more about it because I was living with it. I needed to know how to take care of myself. When I was diagnosed, they gave me three years. Of course, that was 23 years ago.

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