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George's LGBTea: Counting Up Life, When Many Counted Death

I remember when I tested positive for HIV back in 2010. It was three weeks after my 25th birthday. Lacking education around the virus, I thought that it would be my last. I remember getting my results back and crying, and crying, and crying for about 20 straight minutes. The first grandchild to graduate from college, I was stuck with the thought that my life would be cut short and that I’d be a disappointment to my family.

Now, nearly seven years from that life-changing day, I get to sit back and turn the young age of 32 and think about how far we’ve come in this epidemic, and how my fight continues in memory of the folk we have lost; all the folks who never made it to their next birthday.

When I was first diagnosed at age 25, I couldn’t fathom the day that I would be 32 and be “okay.” When I say okay, I mean alive, healthy, thriving, and public about my sexuality, gender, and most importantly out about my HIV status.

I feel this way because I was one of the bad people in the community. I used to be the one saying: “I could never love or date or have sex with anyone who has HIV.” I remember those days of being young and gay and thinking that those who were positive were whores, irresponsible, and going to die. I lacked the education that many of us lack as young gays growing up in a society that doesn’t’ place enough importance on our sexuality. We all get the “wear a condom” speech, but never what happens next: How to handle the situation when a person doesn’t want to use one; How to navigate conversations when a person is HIV-positive and one is HIV-negative. You don’t get those speeches in any of the grades K-12, even though many, granted at an older age, are having sexual encounters involving those very same scenarios.

As life would have it, I would be placed in many of the terrible situations that I put others through for so long. I would now be the person who gets blocked on social media apps for being HIV-positive; the person who was told that others would and could never date because of my status and their fear of contracting the virus themselves. But before all that, I was diagnosed and afraid. I remember the first weeks after the diagnosis I was googling all the information I could find. It was all scary. There weren’t any stories out there about people surviving or public figures outside of the rich and famous who were managing a life with the disease. Everything I saw was rooted in the past, and the death toll that the virus took on the body. I remember thinking to myself that I would never make it to 30, but that it was important that I at least tried.

I signed up for the gym and began to eat much healthier. I wore proper clothing that matched the weather in an attempt to not get sick. When I did get sick, I made sure that I rested. Eventually, 25 turned into 26, then 28, and then 30. Before I knew it, those fears I placed on myself had begun to go away. I stopped counting my death and began focusing on counting up life and life experiences. It was important for me to learn my purpose and write the stories that I always wished I had read. The stories that a person who is newly-diagnosed needs to see as an example that life isn’t over when diagnosed, but that life is just beginning. That diagnosis becomes the moment you can take control over your health and make the decision on what you want to do with the rest of your life.

I think about how fortunate I am that so many fought before me so that I could take a pill-a-day and be able to live a full life expectancy. Not just have a full life expectancy, but also have a quality of life much similar to those who are HIV-negative. I think of all the ancestors and legends who came before me who had their time cut so short, never celebrating their 32nd birthdays, dying with the hopes that one day there might be a cure or simply just treatment. It is that which inspires me to continue to be open and public about my life, and the things I go through as a reminder of how far we have come, and how much further we still need to go.

This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I only expect that happiness to continue as I live in my purpose. So on this day, I write a story of survival and visibility with the hopes that someone will see it and know that they no longer need to be worrying about death, but instead embracing their new life.