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This Positive Life: An Interview With James Bender

December 3, 2010

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Let's talk about the work that you do. Before you were diagnosed with HIV, you worked. You worked as a . . . ?

A landscaper. I was in the military for four years, in the Navy.

And so once you were diagnosed, you started doing HIV work. What exactly do you do?

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I work for the Campaign to End AIDS, which is AIDS Action in Mississippi. We are a grassroots AIDS advocacy group. We are the voice in the community for people that live with HIV. We go to different state legislatures, city government officials and other government and speak on the behalf of the community. We are their voice. If they're scared to speak out, we go speak for them. We teach them how to go and advocate on their own behalf as well.

And how does working there make you feel?

Well, it makes me feel good to know that I'm helping somebody, or I'm their voice, when that person is scared to speak out.

Do you find that there are a lot of people who are positive in your area that are afraid to speak out?

Oh, yes. I see it quite regularly.

What are some of the reasons that they are so afraid?

The stigma and discrimination that are affiliated with the disease; they don't want to be stereotyped; and they feel that their family may shun away from them, or their friends may not want to be around them. Some of them may be in an abusive relationship, and don't want their partner . . .

. . . to lash out at them.

Right.

Do you ever get sick of talking about HIV?

Never. I guess because, like I said earlier, I don't want to see anyone else go through what I went through in the early years, especially with the AZT being the only drug at that time or some of the stigma I experienced. I didn't want to see nobody else go through it.

How many friends have you lost over the years?

Oh, hundreds of them.

How does that make you feel?

"Stigma is the biggest issue. That's the biggest issue -- the stigma and discrimination that goes along with the disease. Even though I'm a heterosexual and tell people that, they don't hear that part. They associate it with being gay."

Well, it hurts, but then it lets me know I've got more work to do. And I can't give up. The fight must go on.

What are some of the difficulties that you face doing HIV/AIDS work in your area, in Mississippi?

Stigma is the biggest issue. That's the biggest issue -- the stigma and discrimination that goes along with the disease. Even though I'm a heterosexual and tell people that, they don't hear that part. They associate it with being gay. Because when it was first out, it was a gay disease. So they automatically assume that you're gay because you're HIV positive.

Do you think that people don't have sympathy for people who are living with HIV?

No. I think it's just the stigma that people have put around it, the different communities -- especially in faith-based organizations. I see more stigma in the churches and in the school systems than I do anywhere else. But I found out you can get more support out of the community than out of the faith-based community, or out of the school system.

You said that you speak to the state legislature. What are some of the things that policy makers just don't understand about HIV?

A lot of them don't understand that we need more money for drugs, because the drugs are expensive. We need more health care legislation. We need laws that protect us against different kinds of criminal acts of discrimination. Because, especially in Mississippi, we've seen a lot of discrimination. So we push for different legislation, for civil rights because people's civil rights are being violated.

Just this year, we had an incident in one of the county schools, where they didn't want this young lady to bring her date to the prom because they were the same sex. And it stirred up a lot of stink. But I understand they got the issue solved.

Do you think that being HIV positive has made you more accepting of other people?

Oh, yes. It changed my outlook on life. It made me look at people as human beings, and we're all created equally, and that God doesn't love one more than He does the other. And it taught me to be nonjudgmental. Whatever that person does, you still meet them where they are at.

Would you say that prior to having HIV you were homophobic?

Oh, yes. I was very homophobic before, but the Lord opened my eyes. He came to me one night in a dream and said, "I don't love this person no more than I love you. I love all of y'all the same. And one is no more than the other one. We are all my children."

To me, that made me open my eyes up, to see that we're all created equal. No one is worth more than the other one.

In what other ways has HIV changed you?

It opened up my eyes to see that there's more to life than just out there having a good time. And it made me realize that everybody doesn't see you as the person you really are; they're looking at the disease. So it made me open up my eyes and see that the people you'd think would care didn't care. Open up your eyes to let you know you have to be careful, and you have to watch the people you're around, because you don't know what they may try to do. It makes you be more aware of what's going around in your surroundings.

"First, you've got to have a positive and a good attitude. And you've got to want to live. And, yes, you're going to have some days where you don't want to do certain things, but do the best you can and educate yourself."

What advice would you give to people who have found out that they're positive?

I would tell them, "I made it. You can make it. It all depends on your attitude." First, you've got to have a positive and a good attitude. And you've got to want to live. And, yes, you're going to have some days where you don't want to do certain things, but do the best you can and educate yourself.

You know, I tell them where they can go to a support group. I can refer them to care. I can refer them to a support service. And then I also tell them what I do. And I tell them, you know, to deal with the denial as quick as they can. The quicker they come out of denial . . . you know, even though they've got the disease, they can still live with it.

What do you think are the biggest issues that we're facing in HIV today?

In Mississippi, housing is one. Stigma, discrimination, and better access to care are some other issues. Because there are a lot of people who are homeless or who do not have access to care. And they are scared to go to the doctors, or scared to go to their local Health Department, fearing that somebody may find out and put the word out, you know.

Afraid they're going to lose their job . . .

Jobs. Yeah. Are they going to lose their spouse? So, discrimination is, I think, or the stigma, is the biggest issue, along with housing.

How long do you see yourself doing this work?

Until the day I die. Because I live and I breathe HIV. I mean, as long as I got breath in my body to fight, I see myself fighting.

And with that, we have to bring this interview to a close. It's been such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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