I got to see the 'dirty side' of AIDS in the '80s and '90s," remarks Rafael Abadia; "Younger people really haven't. I don't think they see the urgency." Rafael came close to death several times in those early years of the epidemic, and has taken numerous HIV treatment regimens. He's also been involved in advocacy, battling stigma, homophobia, AIDSphobia and fighting for access to care for others. Nowadays, he's still tirelessly working to raise awareness of HIV in Latino communities in his home state of Florida.
Reverend Frederick Batiste
As a veteran, the Reverend Frederick Batiste of New Orleans had been prepared to fight battles. But nothing could have prepared him for this: a battle with HIV since 1983. Frederick candidly discusses disclosing his status at his church in the early days of HIV; his journey with different drug regimens; and the joy of making it to his 50s.
James Bender (Video)
James Bender, a heterosexual former U.S. Navy soldier, believed that HIV was a gay white male disease. But when James tested positive in the summer of 1987, he realized that HIV can affect anyone. This father of one and HIV advocate talks about the stigma and discrimination that face people living with HIV in the U.S. South and why he never grows tired of talking about the epidemic.
Petra Berrios and Efrain Carrasquillo (Video)
"There's days that she's my rock," says Efrain Carrasquillo of his wife, Petra Berrios. She says the same about him; the couple met in 2004 and married soon after. Petra and Efrain talk about their family and relationship, and share tips they use to get through the rougher patches of living with HIV/AIDS and taking HIV meds.
There was something in me that said, 'You need to tell these women your story,'" Bernadette Berzoza remembers. "I think a lot of women were thinking like me: 'That's my life, I have to live it. It's not risky behavior.'" Today Bernadette volunteers helping people newly diagnosed with HIV navigate the health care system. This mother and grandmother is the co-founder of an HIV and health education organization that it is still in existence. It's a far cry from the years following her 1989 HIV diagnosis, when she told barely anyone her secret.
For Regina Brandon, HIV was the catalyst that eventually lead her to re-examine her choices, which in turn motivated her to leave behind a nomadic life of sex, drugs and crime. Now Regina lives in Los Angeles, where she is an HIV activist, a public speaker and the founder of a local church-based ministry educating her community about HIV.
With a 27-year history of drinking, using drugs and sleeping with hundreds of women, Greg Braxton's AIDS diagnosis in 1994 came as no surprise. At the time of his diagnosis, he was still struggling with his crack cocaine addiction, which often caused him to neglect his meds. This destructive cycle went on for several years, leading to many hospital visits and Greg developing multidrug resistance.
George Burgess, a father of four, has been through it all -- including a heroin addiction -- and somehow survived without losing faith. He says, "I look at AIDS as an acronym: Always In Divine Service; Always In Divine Space." And service is what he does. He volunteered for years at local AIDS service organizations before being hired as an HIV treatment educator in 2001. He also speaks publically about HIV around the U.S.
Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks
Many black religious figures have been slow to address the HIV epidemic in black America, but Bishop Cheeks is not one of them. Although he joined the ministry in 1982, it was his own diagnosis in 1985 that ushered in his own HIV advocacy. Since then, he has helped turn the church into a source of support for those affected by HIV and a place to educate the community about the epidemic.
Tommy Chesbro (Video)
Oklahoma resident and U.S. Midwest native Tommy Chesbro recalls the moments leading up to his diagnosis in 1986 like they were yesterday. He explains how he disclosed to his parents and began publicly speaking about HIV in the heavily stigmatized U.S. heartland. As a son of two mixed-race parents, Tommy also talks about how his part-Native American, part-African American, part-Caucasian heritage played a critical role in his life.
Patricia Clark (Video)
In 1991, when Patricia Clark's then-boyfriend called from prison and told her that she needed to be tested for HIV, she was completely stunned. Living in a small town in Michigan, Patricia didn't know anyone else who was positive and instantly thought she was going to die. With the help of her local HIV service organization, Patricia found the support, information and solace that she needed. Now, through her HIV community work, this HIV advocate and adoptive mom helps others find the same.
As a 17-year veteran of the Chicago police department and the mother of eight children, Lois Crenshaw knows how to roll with the punches. That may be why, despite being shocked by an HIV diagnosis at the age of 55 after she'd been raped, Lois has become a leader and a role model for older women with HIV. Lois talks about coping with her diagnosis, her battle with depression and stigma in the black church.
Ron Crowder (Video)
When Ron Crowder tested positive in jail back in 1991, he wasn't surprised. Being an injection drug user who shared needles, he knew he was at risk. Yet, despite being diagnosed at a time when AZT was the only medication available, Ron never lost hope. He is now the executive director of Street Works in Nashville. In this interview, Ron talks about the importance of giving back and educating Nashville's African-American community about HIV.
When Brian Datcher was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, his CD4 count was only 62. He lost both a partner of 10 years and an older brother to AIDS, so he vowed to commit to his treatment so that he could live on and make a difference. "HIV/AIDS has made me realize that you must not take this life for granted. You must know that life is a gift and you must take care of that gift."
It took Beatriz Diaz, a mother and grandmother from Fresno, Calif., several years to begin to tell people about her 1992 HIV diagnosis. But when she did: "I could've kicked myself for not speaking up sooner," she says. "There are people out there who care, and I didn't give them the chance to show it!" Now she speaks publicly about HIV in her area -- and brings her grandkids along for the ride.
Millicent Y. Foster
"I've been ridiculed and criticized because of my HIV status," writes Louisiana resident Millicent Foster; "But that has just made me more determined." That determination has led this grandmother of two to become a committed HIV community educator and volunteer. Here, Millicent writes her own story of facing addiction and tragic loss, turning her life onto a different path -- and drawing from family and faith for support.
For Jane Fowler, who describes herself as "the original 1950s good girl," HIV was something that happened to others. So when she tested positive at the age of 55, she was in shock. Within months of her diagnosis, she retired and became reclusive and withdrawn. But Jane is no longer hiding and started her own HIV organization for older women. She has been featured in countless magazines, radio broadcasts and television programs, including The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Sharon Gambles (Video)
When Sharon Gambles was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, she knew nothing about the disease. To make matters worse, during this time, there were very few resources for women living with HIV -- Sharon felt completely alone and lived in denial for years. This recovering addict, mother of three and out lesbian shares her journey to sobriety and how she started to love herself again.
Dab Garner (Video)
Dab Garner, committed longtime activist and father of Dab the AIDS Bear Project, unfolds his life from the very dawn of the AIDS epidemic until today -- from becoming one of the first AIDS patients in San Francisco to his life in the service of others with HIV. Dab's calm manner shows a man at peace with his fate, his survival, and the ghosts around him.
David Garner has come a long way from when he was diagnosed with HIV while serving in the U.S. Navy. Being HIV positive has made him intensely aware of the important things in his life: his health, his time and his loved ones. As a case manager at SEARCH, a homeless facility in Houston, he now helps to connect HIV-positive people to the services they need.
"I never expected to be this alive at this point," Gary said to himself on his 60th birthday. Diagnosed with HIV in 1992, Gary has survived the tragic loss of his partner, a bout with prostate cancer and a heart condition. Gary talks candidly about his health, his family, the challenges of dating, and how he went from denial of his HIV diagnosis to being a knowledgeable HIV/AIDS advocate.
Kathleen Gerus-Darbiuson's Brady Bunch-like childhood never could have prepared her for HIV. In the early 1980s, she fell in love and got married. But in 1985, both she and her husband, a hemophiliac, were diagnosed with a new blood-related disorder: HIV. After four years of silence and the death of Ryan White in 1990, she and her husband announced their HIV status on live television in order to mobilize the hemophilia community to respond to HIV.
In 1999, Bernard Jackson's wife passed away in the hospital weeks after being given an AIDS diagnosis. That's how Bernard learned he was HIV positive -- but he was so consumed with shock, loss and caring for his young daughter that years went by before he was able to process his own diagnosis. "[Sharing my story] was how I started building myself back up," he recalls today.
"I thought of HIV as a death sentence that only weak people got," Terry Johnson recalls. "When I got [my diagnosis], I had to rethink my perception of what HIV was." Once Terry made the decision to educate himself about HIV, this former U.S. National Guardsman realized that he could live a long, healthy and productive life with the virus.
Joseph rides his Harley-Davidson motorcycle as often as he can. Harley riders don't often discuss living with HIV, Joseph says -- though he guesses that others are infected, since he says there are some in the Harley community who use injection drugs. Diagnosed in 1995, Joseph has a supportive family and friends, and says he's currently experiencing one of the happiest times of his life."
Oliver Martin III
In 1986, when Oliver W. Martin III was diagnosed with HIV, then called GRID, he wasn't alone. His younger brother, who was also same-gender-loving, was diagnosed at the same time. But for a decade, the two of them told almost no one. Only when effective HIV treatment became available did they share their diagnoses with their large, tightly-knit family.
Joyce McDonald practices many arts -- from painting and sculpture to poetry and music to motherhood and ministry. In a way, her life has also become its own work of art. Her story of sex work, drug abuse and redemption -- as well as her battle with HIV and hepatitis, which she very nearly lost -- is as much a piece of art as anything she's created with paint or clay.
As a U.S. drill sergeant during his military career, Robert Mintz chose to inspire his charges by example rather than intimidation. When he was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, he once again chose to inspire people by example, sharing his status openly and becoming an advocate for others living with HIV.
Wanda Hernandez (Video)
When Wanda was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, she was completely shocked; she thought she had always practiced safer sex. Like many people who are newly diagnosed, fear began to take over. But instead of letting that fear consume her, she educated herself about HIV and eventually became an activist lobbying in Albany, N.Y., on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. This mother of one talks about the importance of securing housing for people living with HIV/AIDS and why the AIDS community can never give up hope.
Joyce Turner Keller (Video)
Archbishop Joyce Turner Keller never thought that HIV would ever happen to her -- she was a "good Christian" woman. But then everything changed when she was raped and later diagnosed with AIDS. This advocate and grandmother of three discusses why giving up was never an option; the importance of educating the faith community about the epidemic; and her own non-profit, Aspirations.
Patricia Kelly (Video)
Patricia Kelly learned that she was HIV positive while serving time in jail. Convinced that she was going to die, Patricia hid the fact that she was positive and spiraled deeply into her drug use. This mother of three talks about her 20-year journey in and out of the prison system; overcoming the stigma that stopped her from seeking mental health care; and the peace that disclosing her status has brought her.
David P. Lee
David P. Lee did not expect to be diagnosed with HIV. After all, he was an HIV training manager. "I had to deal with a lot of self-imposed shame and guilt about 'knowing better,'" David recalls. He has since realized that "Nobody has to feel ashamed. ... When people ask me how I got HIV, my usual response is that, 'I got it by being a human doing human things.'"
Sherri Lewis, an ex-pop singer and recovering drug user, found out she was positive in 1987 after taking a blood test for her marriage license. Prior to her diagnosis, Sherri thought that HIV was a gay man's issue -- she only knew one woman who died of AIDS. In this interview, Sherri talks about her tumultuous childhood, her rise and fall from fame, her drug addiction and her experiences living with and surviving HIV.
Patricia Nails (Video)
When Patricia Nalls was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, she thought she was the only woman living with HIV. She also never believed she'd live to see her children grow up. Still, she was determined to find and reach out to other women like her in her area. Now a grandmother, Patricia still runs the influential Washington, D.C., women's organization that began as a small support group in her living room.
Pamela Neely is a minority within the HIV community: Not only is she a lesbian, she's also an "elite controller," which means that she has been HIV positive for almost 20 years and her CD4 count has remained high without any treatment. Pamela's unique status has inspired her to learn as much as she can about the virus. She also shares her knowledge within her high-risk Brooklyn neighborhood.
"If you can make a stand, whether it's for yourself, for your community, or for someone you know, do it and be heard," says long-term HIV survivor Shelley Singer. Shelley tells how she became an outspoken advocate sharing her HIV prevention message with young people and running a social group for HIV-positive heterosexuals.
"The transgender community is the most misunderstood population in this [gay] community. And if they have HIV, they can't even go get services because of the way that they're treated," says Ginger Valdez. Ginger, a self-proclaimed drag performer and AIDS advocate, has been living with HIV for over 22 years. In this first-person interview, she discusses being a trans teenager in Puerto Rico, testing positive and the transphobia and homophobia she has endured from others.
Cassandra Whitty (Video)
Despite having numerous conditions related to HIV/AIDS and making multiple hospital trips, like so many others, Cassandra Whitty fell through the testing gaps and was misdiagnosed before finally testing HIV positive in 2000. Cassandra admits she never really thought that HIV could happen to her. This mother and grandmother shares her experiences grappling with her diagnosis, how disclosing made all the difference, and why being an HIV/AIDS advocate is her life's calling.
HIV activist Loreen Willenberg has survived HIV infection since 1992. She's part of a tiny group of people with HIV that scientists call "elite controllers" -- also called "long-term nonprogressors" -- people with HIV whose bodies are somehow able to control the virus, although they have never taken HIV meds. Loreen talks about going public with her status, and founding an organization that brings together HIV controllers from around the world.
Leslie and Andrea Williams (Video)
In 1993, after a brief stint in jail, Leslie, a recovering intravenous drug user, tested positive for HIV. he was most concerned about having to tell his wife, Andrea, who also tested positive. The couple talks to us about the benefits of support groups and how Life Support, the HBO film based on Andrea's life, has given them a larger platform from which to educate people about the epidemic.
Black AIDS Institute founder and chief executive Phill Wilson has worked tirelessly for years to put HIV on the agenda in the black community. Whether he is on CNN, working with black media publications or speaking out in public, he has tenaciously educated African Americans about HIV for almost 30 years. What makes Phill's efforts even more inspiring is that he has been living with HIV since the early '80s.