Octavia Lewis Is Glad to Be Alive and Living Her Truth Without Apology
Name: Octavia Y. Lewis, M.P.A. Location: Bronx, New York Birthday: February 23, 1981
"I've always been the type of person to live in the moment," says Octavia Lewis. "I've always felt that, because I'm a Pisces, if I get caught up in my dreams, I will forget to live in my reality ... I am right where I need to be."
By the time Octavia was diagnosed with HIV in 2006, she already didn't think she would live to see 30. Despite coming of age in the era of effective HIV meds, she still witnessed numerous young gay and transgender friends dying in her Atlanta community. "I was thinking, 'Is this the norm?'" Octavia recalls. "'You contract the virus and then, within a couple of months, a couple of years, you're gone?'"
Fast-forward 10 years: Now 35, Octavia has found love and motherhood in New York City; she's a Ph.D. candidate and a celebrated leader in her community; she's living openly and authentically as a transgender woman with HIV; and she is not going anywhere.
For TheBody.com's "35 at 35" series in June 2016, the 35th anniversary of the first official reports of AIDS, I chatted with Octavia about finding freedom in the club scene as a young trans woman, her current family life and the financial lessons she plans to teach her kids.
Where were you when HIV first entered your consciousness?
I was about 20. I had moved out of my grandmother's home and gotten my own apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. I came across another young trans woman who was 19 at the time. I will never forget her; she was one of the most gorgeous young trans women I had ever met, for her to be 19 and so fully engulfed in her truth.
But what was sad about it was that, when she contracted the virus, she went downhill. She turned to drugs, and she just did everything imaginable, because she was like, "Hey, I'm not going to live much longer anyway." She died a couple of months after she found out.
Knowing that I was not comfortable in the male form, I knew I wanted to transition; I just didn't know how to go about it. But I also told myself that if this happened to her, and then she went down this path when she was trying to live her truth, does that automatically mean that that is my same fate?
I had told myself I wasn't going to live past the age of 30 because I didn't see any older people in my circle. No one I knew at that moment was a long-term HIV survivor. I didn't even know that terminology existed. All I saw around me was my friends dying at a young age.
I was hearing stories of young people, even some of my gay male friends, that were contracting HIV, and they were dying not too long afterward. Then, a couple of years before I found out my [HIV-positive] status, my two best friends and I had a heartfelt conversation, and they told me their statuses. I was like, "Wow. That's two out of three. I'm just waiting for that ball to drop."
When I found out my status in 2006, at the age of about 25, I said to myself, "Geez, none of them lived that long." That was when HIV really came to the forefront of my consciousness.
What point were you at in your gender transition when you were diagnosed with HIV?
In terms of transition: At that point I would get into drag at night. I was doing it part time; I was dressing up at night and going to work during the day. People think Atlanta is so progressive, but when you actually think about people of trans experience that wanted to live in their truth, there weren't that many places that were willing to hire us.
Every night I had to party because I wanted to live; I wanted to feel free. So every night of the week I went out partying with my friends. That was the only time I felt alive. I felt like Octavia.
The most I could do on a job was when I got hired at Walmart and I was working at Metro PCS. I was allowed to wear my hair and wear nails. But I never fully transitioned since I didn't have the proper hormone treatment and stuff of that nature. I did try black-market hormones, but I was hearing so many tragedies and stories about it that I really didn't want to do that.
I didn't start living in my truth, authentically and unapologetically, until I moved to New York. I was 31 when I relocated to New York City. That's when I fully was like, "You know what? I am going to be me. No matter what life has to give me, I am going to live it to the fullest, and that means being Octavia."
Where are you at in your life now?
I am in a committed relationship. We are in the process of trying to adopt our foster son. We got him when he was six months old, and he will be three in August. We also have two foster siblings; the little girl is three and the little boy is five. We don't know how long they'll be with us, so we're just enjoying the time that we have with them.
I've started a Ph.D. program in public policy and administration, but life happens, so I took a break, and I'm going to go back in the fall because I really want to accomplish that goal.
Fill in the blanks in this sentence: At the age of 35, I am glad to be __________ and I wish I were _____________.
At the age of 35, I am glad to be alive.
I wish I were ... I never thought about that. I just try to take it one day at a time and live in the moment and enjoy it because I know that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
I am right where I need to be. And I am happy that I can be here because so many other people that are of trans experience want to have a family and want to have love and want to go to school. I don't take that for granted.
Where do you see yourself in another 35 years? Where do you think the epidemic will be?
If it is the Creator's will for me to still be here, I hope to be retired in a Caribbean setting. I hope to have put enough money away not just to take care of me, but to take care of my children and my children's children so that they won't have to struggle, and they won't have to become robber barons and tycoons that are out for themselves and not thinking about the consciousness of others. I want to have been able to teach my children, and hopefully my grandchildren, how it is to be the lender and not the borrower.
Hopefully the epidemic will be a distant memory. I hope there will be a cure; I hope that our next generation will look back on this situation and see this as a stepping stone for whatever is about to become.
Any final thoughts?
I'm thankful to have this opportunity to be part of this series because our narratives need to be heard. We need to be looked at as more than just statistics. I am a survivor, and HIV is not me; it is a part of me.
That's why I'm glad when I see people that can talk about their status openly and freely. They don't allow stigma to control them; they don't allow what other people think to take up space in their minds.
I'm so thankful I am not in that space anymore. When I came out and told the world [that I was living with HIV] on The Root -- I had only told my sister, my father, my aunt and my grandmother before I published the article -- I cried because I couldn't take it back. But I also felt liberated because I didn't have to hold onto that anymore.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.