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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?


"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.


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.


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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This article was provided by TheBody.

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Monique (South Catolina) Tue., Aug. 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm UTC
I love this article. Congrats to the lady he is engaged to. May you continue to be blessed. When I saw that this was coming from a heterosexual man in the south, spoke volumes to me. I am a positive lady from the south and, you never hear of any heterosexual mem reported to be positive in my area. I have a wonderful HIV case manger and I tease her about finding me a date. She always say that she can find me one but I would have to share him with another man. (jokingly) so, in other words heterosexual men don't reveal there status in small towns.
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Comment by: apple Wed., Jan. 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm UTC
you r a great person.
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Comment by: Dewayne (Oxford, MS) Mon., Dec. 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm UTC
this story is humbuling, of course. I wish I could give him a big hug because i understand alot of these feeling myself. I also have HIV in a small town in Miss. and it is about being educated and taking a stand. You can have HIV or HIV will have you! In the very end you only have two choices, laugh or cry and in my fight I have choose to laugh and keep on going. I admire his passion for life to keep on going because things were much more difficult 20 years ago. Strange as it is I also have a Nurse Practictioner that came from the area that he is from and still to this day there is not alot of resources for people with HIV. Sadly, the CDC labels miss as and epidemic state and there is possibility for every 4 people that knows they have HIV 1 does not. Good luck and much love in the days to come.

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Comment by: Susan (london - England) Wed., Dec. 8, 2010 at 4:22 am UTC
Hello James,
I wondered if you have had any communication with people who are trying to educate faith based organisations in the UK.
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Comment by: Pamela Bender (San Antonio, Texas) Tue., Dec. 7, 2010 at 7:47 pm UTC
James Bender is my brother and I'm very proud of the work he has done and is doing to educate others about HIV/AIDS. Over the years I've seen James deal with complications brought about by the disease but I've never seen him give up on his continuing fight and passion for the cause. I'm proud to call James my brother and my friend, the love I have for him goes beyond a diagnosis. I pray God's continued blessings in his life so that he may continue to spread his knowledge and experiences with others as he has done over the years.
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Comment by: Mike Bryson (Indianapolis, IN) Mon., Dec. 6, 2010 at 4:15 pm UTC
Brother James,

I'd just like to time this time to copmliment you on your courage, confidence and attitude about "Living" with HIV. I am not living with HIV myself, however I have worked in the HIV field since 1987. Now as the HIV Educator for the Ryan White Service Program I will use your story as support for the facts about living with HIV and as inspiration for those I work with everyday. I work with people newly diagnosed with HIV and those who have known their HIV status for years. A key part of my job is to get newly diagnosed into treatment and help others return to treatment or stay connected with care. I constantly strive to help others understand the importance of "medication adherence". If it is OK with you I will use your article in my HIV Education presentation that I conduct anywhere from the prisons I go into and the "Fathers Resource" programs (just to mention a few of the programs I conduct on-going sessions at)which target young African American males, age 16-28, who are now fathers and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. So many of them have children by one or more women and think nothing bad will ever happen to them. Again, James as an HIV Educator I appriciate your story and salute you as a human being and a very producty member of our society. Keep up the good work. Stay strong and most importantly stay on your medications.

Mike Bryson, MSW
HIV Educator & Risk Reduction Coordinator
Marion County Health Department
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Comment by: Joanie S. (Newport, Oregon) Mon., Dec. 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm UTC
Excellent interview! I hear what James Bender is saying. I work as a nurse in Public Health and I see the stigma surrounding HIV. People are afraid. Teenagers especially, act like if they don't talk about it, it doesn't exist. It will never happen to me attitude. I try to educate the best I can and encourage testing and prevention. Thank you.
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