Personal Perspective: Staying in the Game, Despite the Odds

James Russell

I never lived the perfect life my family wanted. I always had bigger visions for myself even if they didn't agree with me. And over the years I've dealt with all the madness that life has put in front of me.

When I was a teenager my brother found out I was gay when he caught me messing around with one of his friends. He didn't know about me or his friend. He freaked out and told my whole family! My secret life was over, and I lost all respect from my family.

They turned me away and called me all kinds of names. My mother said, "You mean I raised a sissy?!" She said even worse things -- things you shouldn't say to your child. It really hurt me. My father and brother were no better -- they all treated me like a stepchild. And then they kicked me out of the house, because I was gay. I was only 15 years old! I became homeless and had to turn tricks just to survive. I refused to go to the shelters because they were so filthy. I slept on park benches instead. I even slept under a bridge in the middle of winter.

I used to think HIV could never happen to me. I met someone I really liked, but someone told me he was sick. I didn't know what that meant, so I had sex with him. I thought you got HIV because of living a bad lifestyle like using cocaine or crystal meth or heavy drinking. I didn't live like that so I thought it couldn't happen to me.

When I found out I was HIV positive I called my mother and I cried so hard she didn't know who I was. I told her I was HIV positive and she said, "Hold on, I'm coming." She flew out to Cleveland all the way from L.A. When she got there she prayed with me and hugged me and said, "Everything is going to be okay." But it wasn't.

My mother has such a flip-flop personality. Since then she's told me, "Because of your lifestyle, you deserve what you have." She keeps telling me to get saved. I keep telling her, "God doesn't make mistakes."

The negativity of my family weighs me down. I've had to fight it and deal with my own fears of what HIV could do to my body. I used to be afraid to go to sleep because I thought I'd wake up and be sick and skinny and ugly. So I would try to stay awake all the time. I was so tired, but I would only sleep in little spurts until I would pass out because I was exhausted. I could never keep a job because I couldn't focus.

I've been afraid of people rejecting me because I'm HIV positive and of all the horrible names they would call me like "AIDS infested mo'fo'" and "monster". I've even been afraid of HIV meds because I thought they would stop my heart from beating. I thought those meds would do my body more harm than good and I would swell up and die. I used to think to myself, "When is it going to be my turn?"

In the '90s, I started a basketball league at a YMCA. It was good to be active and part of a team. I recruited drug dealers and gang-bangers, to get them off the street. It's been really good and I'm proud of myself. It's been hard sometimes being a basketball coach because of my HIV status and being gay. It shouldn't make a difference, but it does. It's hard knowing that some people in the neighborhood call me "homo coach". It's terrible, but I keep going year after year. I have never been ashamed of who I am and I always try to keep a professional image.

I still coach today and I'm still afraid of the stigma from the players and their parents. But sometimes I have conversations with the players about HIV. I tell them they should go get tested because you don't have to look sick to be sick. I tell them to take care of themselves and make good decisions. Maybe that can help them stay healthy, too.

Today I'm not afraid to tell people I'm HIV positive, and I'm trying to make new relationships. I just told a friend that I have HIV. When I told him, he took a deep breath and swallowed hard. But he said he was okay with it and didn't think less of me. Things are different now than they used to be -- I feel more comfortable with myself.

I'm also not afraid of HIV meds anymore. A year ago my doctor told me he wanted to take precautions so I wouldn't get sick now that I'm older. He told me the new meds weren't like the meds back in the '90s that were really hard on a person's body. So I thought I'd give them a try. When I first started, I vomited because I wasn't used to them. But now I don't have any side effects and I feel stronger and healthier -- I'm even gaining back the weight I lost.

My life has been a roller coaster, and coaching is what gets me through it. I still love my family, despite how they feel about me and how they've treated me. But it's a cold love because they have given me so much stress. Some of the bad things from my past stay with me, but I have to ignore the haters and keep doing what's right for me. I have God in my life, and I know it's because of him that I'm still here today and that my viral load is undetectable. His plan for me on earth isn't over yet. It's like one my favorite inspirational songs says, "We fall down, but we get up!"