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Matthew Seymour
Dallas, Texas
 


Matthew Seymour
  Matthew Seymour was diagnosed with HIV shortly before taking the Texas bar exam. But the virus didn't slow him down a bit: He now devotes his life to acting as a legal advocate for indigent HIV-positive people and terminally ill people living in rural areas of northern Texas.
Coping and Counseling: Rural HIV Legal Aid Provider and Recently Diagnosed Lawyer Matthew Seymour was about to begin girding himself for one of the most harrowing experiences of a law student's existence -- the bar exam -- when something far more serious entered his life. Just before graduating from law school, Matthew's HIV test came back positive, and his life was suddenly thrown into chaos.

This award serves to acknowledge Matthew's impressive response to a particularly personal challenge -- dealing with his HIV diagnosis while continuing to pursue a legal career, and while spending his time helping HIV-positive people who were worse off than him.

It's both ironic and fortunate that Matthew, a former Peace Corps volunteer, worked for an AIDS service organization before his diagnosis. That connection provided him with the support he needed to cope with his own HIV status, while also giving him an opportunity to give back. Matthew, a Dallas-area native, currently manages the Mobile Legal Services Project of Dallas Legal Hospice, acting as a legal "circuit rider" for 12 counties in rural north Texas, where he provides legal advocacy to people who are battling HIV or a terminal illness but are unable to access the legal services they desperately need. He also works to educate his legal peers on issues pertaining to HIV, often using his own HIV status as a way to make a personal connection or break down stereotypes about HIV-positive people.

Diagnosed less than a year ago, Matthew is still in the process of adjusting to life with HIV. He considers himself fortunate to be surrounded by people who are both knowledgeable about and compassionate towards people with HIV, and credits his partner of eight years for being his strongest source of support. He encourages all newly diagnosed people to seek the same support, and not to let their HIV status prevent them from achieving all of their future plans.

GOING PUBLIC

Who have been your mentors? Who do you look up to, and why?

Most recently, William Bridge. He's a law professor at Southern Methodist University, and was very instrumental in encouraging me to continue public service work after I graduated from law school. Before our first round of exams in our first semester, he gave us a whole class on what he called "The Rules of Life for Legal Professionals," which was all about helping you keep your priorities straight when you enter such a demanding profession. He talked about lawyers who do nothing but work for 20 years and end up not knowing their own children's names -- the basic message was "What really matters in life is your capacity to love and be loved." That, and come to class prepared and ready to learn.

"If HIV were an animal it would be a fire ant. Really, that's exactly what it's like -- everyone reading this from Texas will know exactly what I'm talking about! You don't even notice them until there's a big mound of them in your backyard. One's nothing, but en masse they cause horrible damage and can wreck your house and even kill you. You need to control them before it gets to that point."

What made you decide to speak out publicly about your HIV status?

I was diagnosed last May [2004]. I felt it was important to speak out because there will continue to be people like me who are newly diagnosed, and many of the AIDS service organizations [ASOs] that have been around for a long time are geared more to the needs of long-term survivors. There's also a great lack of understanding and knowledge about HIV in the legal community, and they need to know the special circumstances that impact HIV-positive people.

What do you think is unique about the audiences you try to reach when you speak out?

Our clients are my largest audience, and I think sharing my own status helps them to see that we share many of the same concerns about life -- what's going to happen to me? What happens with my job? Who do I tell? What about my family, my friends? Sharing that common ground helps me make a connection more quickly with these clients.

My other main audience is the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers, and my goal in sharing with them is to show them ways they can become more aware and involved.

What's the best thing about sharing your story with others?

Just educating people. One question you always hear is, "What does an HIV-positive person look like?" and my disclosure shows them that it can be anyone. You can't pigeon-hole or stereotype. It's a good educational tool.

What's the worst thing?

The fear, the absolute fear. Even checking that little box on the form at the dentist makes me think, "Am I going to be treated differently?"

What do your relatives feel about you speaking out?

I'm not out to my relatives about this yet. That's going to be a challenge. They don't know much about HIV, and my parents are going to cry and be afraid I'm going to die. Yes, that's going to be hard.

What have you learned since you began speaking openly about your HIV status? How has speaking out helped you, and how have you changed as a result?

I can't say I'm living for the moment, but it's given me more perspective about thinking, "Oh, I'll do that tomorrow." It makes you look at what you want to do and at your protections, especially your financial protections. I'm more inclined to do what I want to do now. I have a renewed interest in lots of things that I don't want to put aside for another day.

DIAGNOSIS

Can you describe your feelings when you were first diagnosed? How long do you think it takes to really process the diagnosis?

When I was first diagnosed I was shocked, to be honest. I was very clinical about it -- I got my test results the night before my first final in my last semester of law school, and I just shoved it out of my mind so I could get up at 8 a.m. to take this exam. But after graduation, when I was studying for the bar, I broke down. One afternoon I just started dwelling on death: Where will I be buried? My sister died years ago -- will my mom have to bury two of her children now? I finally just cried and wailed until I was exhausted.

After that, though, it was about drama vs. reality. I work for an AIDS service organization; I have HIV-positive friends. So I talked with my doctor and one of my friends who's living with HIV, and they told me, "It's not like it was 15 years ago. In fact, your immediate concerns are more likely to be financial than medical!" And I've gone forward from there.

Any tips for those who are newly diagnosed?

Talk with people in your community and find a good doctor and make an appointment. Talk with your physician about treatment plans; ask about possible side effects of medications. Be engaged in your own treatment.

Why do you believe you acquired HIV?

Unprotected sex.

What do you think is the biggest risk factor for anyone these days?

Again, unprotected sex. That's for women as well as men.

What do you think are the first things someone who has just found out they have HIV should do?

First, go to your doctor, or go to an AIDS organization and find someone to talk with about your condition. We talk with clients about this all the time -- so many of them aren't diagnosed until they're in the hospital and sick, and by that time their options are much more limited. If you're not in a dire medical situation, go to your doctor and get your labs done and talk with him or her about your options. It gives you peace of mind.

Second, talk with someone who's HIV positive and has done all this before. They'll help you re-evaluate and make changes in your life. I'm a big fan of sobriety; I think people need to get support during that crucial early time so they don't just start drowning their sorrows.

If HIV were a person, animal or object, what would it be?

If HIV were an animal it would be a fire ant. Really, that's exactly what it's like -- everyone reading this from Texas will know exactly what I'm talking about! You don't even notice them until there's a big mound of them in your backyard. One's nothing, but en masse they cause horrible damage and can wreck your house and even kill you. You need to control them before it gets to that point.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing HIV-positive people today?

Stigma, still. This is a very misunderstood and negatively viewed disease that is tied in many people's heads to "bad behaviors." Diabetes can result from bad behaviors too, but HIV is still seen as a "gay disease" or a disease resulting from sex and drugs. You've done something bad to get this, so you're bad too. And people still have contagion fears about it. A good friend of mine tells this joke about how you can't get HIV from a toilet seat unless you sit down on it before the other guy gets up. It's funny in a way, but not really when you think about it.

I find it interesting that Peter Jennings goes on TV and tells the world he has developed lung cancer after years of smoking (an admittedly bad habit that he willingly engaged in), and he receives fan mail and support. The same is not true for people living with HIV; they are still seen, in many communities, as deserving of this disease because of their "bad" behaviors.

What is the biggest change you'd like to see in HIV care? How about in HIV education?

In the beginning, this was a crisis. People were very sick, and no one knew why -- our agency started out of that time period and those needs. Now, we do a lot of chronic-care planning. I think there will always be the need for specialists, but in the future AIDS organizations will also need to change what they do with and for people. They'll need to increase insurance assistance, provide more programs to help people manage their long-term emotional and physical well-being, and generally assist people in living their lives. We'll move into disease management rather than immediate survival issues. Hopefully, the larger social support network will absorb the services like food pantries and housing assistance -- there's a liberal church here in Dallas that does that now. That kind of network will free up the ASOs to work specifically on life management for people with HIV.

When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see in the future for people living with HIV?

This is my pragmatic side talking, but what I want to see is more insurance assistance programs like the one we have at several local ASOs. Medicare and AIDS Drug Assistance Programs are totally overburdened and it's better for you to stay on your private insurance anyway, but the COBRA payments can be astronomical if you lose your job or change jobs or otherwise lose your insurance. So what these programs do is take over your COBRA payments for up to 24 months, which helps you avoid a lapse in your insurance and the resulting "pre-existing condition" clauses when you try to get private insurance again. In the future, I'd like to see insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry kick in for these programs -- our local pharmacy does that.

How do you maintain a positive outlook?

I was warned that around six months out from diagnosis I'd get weird, but that didn't happen. I have a great personal and professional support network, and I'm generally happy with my life. This is just something I have to integrate and get used to.

TREATMENT

What has been your overall experience with HIV treatment so far?

My numbers are such right now that I'm not using any medications. Unless something changes significantly, I won't be on HAART for a while; when it gets to that point, we'll talk about what to do then.

What is your current CD4 count and viral load count? What was your first CD4 count and viral load count?

I don't remember what they were the first time, except that my doctors weren't concerned. Now, my CD4 is 750, and I'm sorry but I don't remember my viral load.

How often do you see your doctor? How did you choose your doctor?

I go in every three months or so for labs right now. I had a couple options for healthcare providers under my insurance. I chose mine based on the individual clinical studies he did -- he's working to make things better, and I respect that.

What kind of relationship do you have with your care providers?

It's very professional. I like my doctor and the physician's assistant; they're great. They talk to you, they're responsive to questions, and they're happy I want to be involved with my own care, because apparently a lot of people don't want to be.

Do you have a health or wellness regimen that you feel helps you keep healthier?

I'm working on lowering my cholesterol now so it's in a good place if I do start on HAART. Beyond that, I exercise regularly, try to eat right, avoid alcohol and drugs and don't smoke -- I'm the Moderation Guy.

Dating

My partner and I have been together for almost nine years, so I've never had the experience of dating since being diagnosed.

AWARD

Who would you dedicate this award to, if you could?

Everything in my life I have to give back to my partner right now. He's a great man; I really love him and think he's amazing. Also everyone here at the office -- they were the first people I came out to about my status. It's a small office, and everyone gives 110% to our clients. They're all very inspirational themselves.

PERSONAL

Can you share a little personal information about yourself?

I'm note sure exactly what you want here, but I am proud of the accomplishments I achieved while I was in law school. I was the recipient of four scholarship awards, one of which was the John F. Kennedy Memorial Scholarship. That one was awarded to me and one other person selected by the Class of 2004 for outstanding contributions to the law school community and for public service achievement. I won the 2004 Texas State Bar Association Municipal Court Section Essay Competition, which is a big achievement. Iím also a 2004 Equal Justice Works Fellow, which is a two-year Fellowship sponsored by the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation.

I had a good head for science, so I started out studying biology when I went to college. Then organic chemistry ate my lunch, so I switched to journalism. I had a job at the Dallas Times Herald lined up for after graduation, but it folded two weeks before I graduated -- so I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in Mali instead!

"This is a very misunderstood and negatively viewed disease that is tied in many people's heads to 'bad behaviors.' Diabetes can result from bad behaviors too, but HIV is still seen as a 'gay disease' or a disease resulting from sex and drugs."

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Plano, which is a suburb of Dallas. It was a small farm town when we got there; you either worked on a farm or for Texas Instruments. Then it grew and grew, and as it grew it became kind of divided between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Technically, my family lived on the "poor side" of the town, but it was really a Bubble City -- a very sheltered, protected environment.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

In grade school, I wanted to be a doctor, but when I was older I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist.

What kind of work did your parents do?

My mother was a homemaker and secretary for our church, and my father was an electrical engineer. They're retired now.

What kinds of work have you done?

While serving in the Peace Corps, I was supposed to do a gardening project, but the people I went to live with in Mali were already the gardening experts of the region so that was pointless. I ended up working with trees -- trees are wealth there, because the economic system works on land inheritance. We worked on grafting with mango trees and doing "live fencing" with trees, and I also worked with a group of women to build clay stove encasements so they could use less wood and not have to expend so much labor gathering wood for cooking.

When I got back home, I worked stateside for the Peace Corps doing public relations in Washington, D.C., through the Director's office. I helped to coordinate a conference on international volunteerism, bringing together the international Peace Corps equivalents in order to strengthen collaborations between the nations.

I also helped develop the Peace Corps Partnership Program and the Gifts-in-Kind program, which provide financial and material support for volunteerís projects overseas in their host countries, like building schools and supplying clinics.

After that, I came back to Dallas and worked as a bookkeeper to kill time before law school. I became the Director of Development for the agency that housed the AIDS Resource Center, John Thomas Gay & Lesbian Community Center, and the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic. We had an annual budget of four million dollars, and I had to raise half of that. The biggest successes I had at that job were getting them accepted to the United Way -- the first gay and lesbian center and one of the few ASOs to be accepted -- and got a community development block grant for the city of Dallas to complete a community center building that included meeting rooms and a cafeteria for a daily hot-meal program.

Who have been the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally? Why?

The director of the Peace Corps during my stint in Washington was Mark Gearan. He used to be President Clinton's communications director. He was extremely impressive to work for -- he's a very real, down-to-earth, personable guy.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I'm an avid reader. I've read the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and all the supplemental writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and his son Christopher Tolkein, and a lot of science fiction. I like playing video games, especially "Zelda." I also paint miniature military figurines.

What are you currently reading? What book or author, if any, has had the biggest impact on you?

I just finished The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks. There are two books I read every year: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, which was written about World War One and censored many times and is difficult to find right now because it's gone out of print, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Do you have any pets?

My partner and I have a four-year-old Chihuahua named Lady.

Where do you live? Could you describe your community?

It's an ethnically diverse community.

If you could live anyplace besides where you live right now, where would you live?

Galveston, on the Gulf Coast. My whole family lives here in Texas, so I don't picture leaving here.

What's the biggest adventure you've ever had?

During my time in the Peace Corps, we once took a boat up the River Niger to Timbuktu.

What kind of music do you like? Which artists do you listen to the most, and who has had the biggest impact on you?

I'm not a particularly musical person, but I enjoy classic rock and roll and reggae.

Interview by Laura Jones

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