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This Positive Life: An Interview With James Bender

December 3, 2010

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What were people's responses? Were most of the people receptive to what you were saying?

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Some of them were shocked. Some shunned away. Some didn't want to hear it.. But some of the congregations I went to, it had already affected their congregation. Some churches invited me, instead of me having to go and find them.

How has HIV affected your romantic relationships with women?

Well, I think even after I tell them, a lot of them still want me. But I kind of shun away from them now. Because I don't want to cause anyone else to go through what I had to go through, even though there's protection. But I don't trust protection like I did in the early years. Some women could be allergic to the latex, or the reaction that it can cause, or the chances that it may tear or break.

But you are dating? Aren't you? You're engaged.

Right. I'm engaged.

What did she say when you told her that you were positive?

She was very open to it. And she said, "Well, I don't know that much about it, but you can teach me and I'm willing to learn. I don't care about you being positive." And that meant a lot to hear that from her. In the past, a lot of women have told me the same thing and didn't really mean it. They were only out for what they could get.

"Over the eight years that [my fiance and I] have been together, she has proven that she's there for me. I think that's what helped me -- to get some of the stress off of me and made me feel loved. So that helped a lot."

Over the eight years that we have been together, she has proven that she's there for me. I think that's what helped me -- to get some of the stress off of me and made me feel loved. So that helped a lot.

Did you feel unloved for a little while?

Oh, yeah; probably for about 15 years. I could tell they didn't want me around by their actions, even though they didn't say it. But you could tell by their body signs that they didn't want you there. And you could feel the hostility in the room.

And these were people you were dating or just people in general?

These were people who were supposed to have been my friends.

But you're not friends with them anymore, are you?

Oh, yeah. I didn't hold judgment against them, because I figured one day that they would understand. And now they are starting to come around. They have talked to me years later and said they just didn't know how to deal with it -- HIV was new back then. And remember we are living in a rural town in Mississippi. Like I said, I was the first one in my area to test positive for HIV. Of course, then that came up about three or four, a couple of months later. And then they kind of did open up a little bit.

People were afraid. People still are afraid.

Right.

Do you have any children?

Yes.

Tell me about your child.

I have a daughter who is also positive. We have a great relationship; we talk pretty regularly.

Did you know that you had a daughter before?

No. No. She was about 22 years old when I found out I had a daughter. And I had been positive 21 years. So that's how I . . .

You did the math.

Right, I did the math. But despite not knowing her all these years, she and I have a great relationship. Even though we're miles apart, we still have a great relationship.

Tell me the story behind that. Do you remember her mother?

No. Not at all.

And how did your daughter find out about you?

Through the Web, the Internet. It's a good thing.

And is her mother alive?

No.

She passed away.

She died of complications to AIDS.

When was that?

It had to be in the early '90s.

So a couple of years after you were diagnosed, she passed away, you think?

Yeah, somewhere in there, '91 or '92.

Why did she never tell you about your daughter?

"It makes me feel good to know that she's out there, doing the same kind of [AIDS] work. And we can have not only that bond, but we have a father-daughter bond."

I guess because she didn't know how to -- it was a one-night stand and I wasn't from her town. And like I said: I was a ladies' man. I guess you could say, being an ex-Navy guy. Women like men in uniforms. I don't think she knew she was probably infected herself, either.

So you think you contracted HIV from her?

Right.

And so your daughter contacted you. Were you absolutely shocked?

No, because of my lifestyle. Because, you know, I didn't know what I left in these different states or countries, because I was out there.

And so how has she dealt with her diagnosis?

She's done great and I'm proud of her. She works with other young people. And so it makes me feel good to know that she's out there, doing the same kind of work. And we can have not only that bond, but we have a father-daughter bond.

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