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This Positive Life: An Interview With Wanda Hernandez

March 1, 2011

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How awesome is it that you can lobby in Albany? What have been some of the reactions to things that you have said?

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When I started going to Albany, I found it to be such a blast. But just to know that you get to rub elbows with these politicians who are on T.V. It's awesome. Especially when you have the chance to meet face-to-face with the governor and not for 15 minutes, but for an hour and a half. That was really interesting. And it makes you feel like a celebrity, because a lot of them will recognize you and a lot of them know what type of work you are doing and a lot of them are allies and supporters -- I love it.

And what are some of the big issues -- I know that you were in City Limits, which is a magazine, a newspaper in New York City. You were in it talking about housing. Can you talk about why housing is so important to people living with HIV and how your housing has impacted your life?

Housing is important for people living with HIV because they can't concentrate on their meds. They can't concentrate on going to the doctor. They are constantly worried about where they are going to lay their head at night. For me, I got involved in the fight with Vocal New York, because I am one of those people facing homelessness. After holding two jobs at a time, for years, and investing in a safety net that was supposed to protect people like myself, I feel let down by the government. Them choosing how much you get left with at the end of the day is not fair.

"Housing is important for people living with HIV because they can't concentrate on their meds. They can't concentrate on going to the doctor."

I like to describe this situation as the AHB. For those who don't know what AHB is, it's the "Affordable Housing Bill," that is fighting for the 30 percent housing rent cap, which is supposed to benefit 10,000 people such as myself from becoming homeless. HASA is the only government agency in the city that does not cap rent for us by 30 percent. If we were able to pass this bill, we would be able to save the city and state money; I would be able to hold down my apartment. I would be able to enjoy regular life, like go to a movie and dinner with a friend. Being able to purchase your toiletries and not worry if, juggling whether you should go to this appointment or that appointment because you cannot afford it. There are a lot of things that are associated with housing.

What would you say to the people who say, "Well you did this to yourself, why should I pay for you?" What do you have to say to those people who have such little compassion?

Don't point the finger because what goes around comes around. People should be more open-minded of the topic, but not just that topic, but any topic. Even when those who try to kick down people doing drugs -- that's a disease. It isn't always something that people chose to do. For whatever reason why people do them, but it is a disease. Same with alcoholism. It's not like we choose to live the way that we do. It's just part of life.

Do you ever get sick of talking about or thinking about HIV?

Actually, no I don't. Today, I go out with my head up high. It's funny because the other day I was in Brooklyn, and some ladies actually recognized me from a testimony I gave out at a local collegeIt was overwhelming to me. It felt good to be recognized. So no, I don't feel like I should have my head down. I am doing it for a good cause -- it's important to me.

What has HIV taught you about yourself over the past 16 years?

It has taught me to be strong. It has taught me who your real friends are. It has taught me that it's not an overnight thing; you have to learn to live with it. And that you can have a normal life. Unfortunately those on the outside of the box don't know that because they are petrified, they don't know what to expect. But like I said to people, you may not have HIV, but you could step off the curb and get hit by a car. When it's your time, it's your time.

What advice would you give to people who just found out that they are positive?

"My advice to someone who just found out that they are positive is don't give up on yourself. Your voice counts."

My advice to someone who just found out that they are positive is don't give up on yourself. Your voice counts. If you have what it takes to be a leader, then go ahead. You are not alone; there are others out there who are willing to back you up. And I just say, when you speak out about the subject, it empowers you more. It gives you freedom. At least for me it does. I feel like I am one of God's disciples and that I am here to teach.

There is this huge misconception that once you test positive, you can't do anything in life. You can't go to school; you can't live your dreams. And you are someone who is just like, "Oh hell no." Talk to me about that. People remembering to live their dreams.

I think a lot of that negativity is surrounded by the stigma that started back in the '80s. But it also has to do with the individual, whether they're willing to strive and stay afloat. To not give up. I had a friend in 1995, when I was going to groups and he totally gave up. He found out that he was positive and he decided that he wanted to go to back to our country and he went, and within a month, he was gone.

I say to people fight because you don't die overnight -- it depends on the individual.

And with that, we are going to bring this interview to a close. Thank you so much Wanda.

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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