Testing HIV Positive in the Aftermath of Sexual Assault
January 3, 2011
You said you live in a rural area. What are some of the difficulties of doing HIV work in those areas?
Well, I do --
I mean there's a million.
Oh yeah. I do a project called AIDS Rural Project where we had kids do community service. They made a little card and we put an AIDS ribbon on it, we put statistics on it and stuff about Project HOPE. And we go to like Walmart and to Giant Eagle and we hand them out there at the door. We collect donations. I have a booth set up. So we get stares. You can see people, as soon as they see the AIDS ribbon, it's like, "Ooh, walk past that." And I do the local fairs and things, I've gone to them, tried to do fundraisers and stuff, selling water, making lemon shakes and things. You just can see it on people's faces. As soon as they see the red ribbon, it's just like, "Ooh. We're not going past there. We might catch it if we buy water from them."
Do you think that's how they really feel?
Oh yeah. I've done this for -- I started Project Hope in 2008 and I've gone probably to four, five, six, maybe, fairs since then. It's just the same thing.
Where in Pennsylvania is this?
Thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, the southwestern part of Pennsylvania.
What kind of population is it? Is it miners?
It used to be steelworkers.
Sorry, that's right. Duh. Steelers. Pittsburgh. I'm thinking miners is West Virginia. So it used to be steelworkers and they're not --
No, the steel mills have pretty much all closed. There's a few, but it's mostly -- US Air was the big employer but they went out, the airport up there. It's a really hard economic area.
And you think there's a lot of miseducation and fear?
Oh yeah. I try to get into schools to do HIV 101 and it's either, "No, you can't come in and talk about it," or, "Yes, you can, but it has to be abstinence." It's hit or miss. So I'm trying to get into the schools to do some education.
Do you deal with a lot of gay youth in the area?
Not really. If I do I usually send them to Pittsburgh. There's a youth empowerment project that my friend Lindsay runs. I usually refer them to her.
So you're dealing with straight people mostly?
It's about half and half.
Talk about some more of the difficulties that you've faced doing work in these rural areas.
We had a lady come up to the table the other day when we did it and tell us that if men wouldn't have sex with men, there'd be no AIDS. And then she ran away. I wish she would have stayed long enough for me to educate her because I felt bad for her.
You should have caught her.
Well, no, believe me. So many things went through my head so quick. Oh no, no, no. I felt bad for her because she has to live her life with that negativity, and she doesn't know so much she could have in her life just because of her own ignorance. I wish I could have educated her. That's part of my program, education.
What made you decide to do this work?
I got sick, when I became infected. Since then, I've had probably 10, 15 friends who have passed away.
Since you've been diagnosed to now?
It was clients and friends.
I think that what's interesting is that while this disease is manageable, people still die.
A lot of them ... just because they didn't take medicine.
They didn't adhere and they grew resistant.
And some of them were long-term, too. They had been diagnosed in the '80s, went through a lot.
Did you try to talk to them about adhering to meds?
Oh yeah, definitely.
What did they say?
They have a program a lot of them were doing. Every time you open your pills, it counts it. There's like a counter on top of the pill case. There's different programs I've asked them to go to. Some of them did get involved, some didn't. It's hit or miss.
How do you adhere to your medication? Do you like alarm clocks? Do things remind you?
I take it once a day and I take it at 5 o'clock.
Well that's easy. So talk to me more about the work that you do and why you got involved. You saw your friends dying. You were sick. What does this work mean for you?
It's -- I don't know -- I just feel like I do so well. I'm so healthy. My T-cell count is so high. My viral load's been undetectable for years. I just feel that it's my purpose. Why would a higher power take all these people and leave me? That's a question I always wonder.
Do you ever have survivor guilt?
That's probably what it is. That's probably what I experience.
Do you still seek counseling to deal with the guilt?
I haven't recently. But I was a few years ago in counseling.
So how is the community? And not so much the people that are just like, "Oh my god. AIDS is Gays." But how do they react? How do clients thank you? How do people in the community come and say, "You're doing a good job"?
I do a lot on Facebook. I actually do Facebook anonymous, I think. But I do a lot of promotion on Facebook. I have 356 fans on the Project HOPE page. A lot of people leave messages on there. A lot of people have donated. For all my fundraisers and everything that I do, I've not had to do anything. Everything's been donated by the drug companies, or friends and family or just different stores I've approached asking for donations. I would say, probably 95 percent of everything I do with Project HOPE is positive. It gets positive results. But there's still always going to be somebody. In a rural area, that's to be expected. But it's only -- that's the first time somebody's said anything. That lady at my table was the first time someone said anything the whole time I've done Project HOPE. Now with Beaver County AIDS Service Organization, I had someone say something once, but that was over four years, too. So I think that -- I don't say it's good, but it is.
So you're slowly but surely making a difference.
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