What Does HIV Look Like?
What does HIV look like? Could you describe what a person living with HIV looked like? Would you say they looked sick or was sitting somewhere in a hospital with tubes coming out of their body? What does HIV look like to you? I remember when I was younger I watched the movie “Philadelphia” starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. If you don’t remember the movie Tom Hanks played a successful lawyer (Andrew Beckett) who found out he was HIV positive. The movie follows his journey and we all watched as the character Andrew Beckett goes from looking “healthy” to looking physically sick. Growing up I believed that if a person had HIV they would look “sick.” I was a child back then so my young mind used a movie I had seen to help create what HIV looked like to me. Of course I grew up and I learned the facts, but you’d be surprised by how many people still believe that they can describe what a person with HIV looks like.
Does a person who is HIV positive look like this….
Brenden Ortiz is an author, HIV activist, and he is also HIV positive. Brenden became HIV positive about five years ago. After learning he was HIV positive Brenden went through some dark periods in his life, he lost his mother to cancer and not long after that his father. It’s hard enough dealing with one tragedy alone but having to deal with multiple can seem unbearable when you are going through it. What helped Brenden cope was writing in his journal, he wrote so much he wrote a book, “The Pretty Boy with the House In Virginia.” He shared with the world that he was HIV positive and also told all the raw and uncut moments that lead him to contracting the virus. After writing his book Brenden wanted to do more so he created a campaign called, “What does HIV look like?” This campaign was created to educate people about HIV and help change the stigmas and stereotypes associated with people living with the virus. After the launch of his campaign Brenden created, “What Does HIV Look Like” monologues. This was an artistic approach to educating the public and giving people living with HIV a platform to tell their stories.
The monologue starred Brendan Ortiz along with, Manny Ramsey, and Malina Fisher. The event was powered by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (the Brooklyn location). I was set to host the panel discussion that followed the monologues. Upon arrival I didn’t know what to expect, I knew I wanted to be of service, and I wanted the panelist to understand that I was not here to judge but to help aide them in telling their stories. Manny Ramsey took the stage first, before the show started I had got to spend some time with him and I loved his openness and his warm nature that he possessed. Manny contracted HIV a little over a year and a half ago, one of the questions I asked him was how did he transition from silently whispering “why me” to loudly saying “I am living with HIV and I am an activist?” His answer was mature and took me by surprise, “I decided to take responsibility, I told myself that I am still alive and I can still have a life and help others.”
Here is a short clip from his performance below:
I then asked Manny another question and I gave him the opportunity to opt out of answering (because I knew it might be a tough question to answer). I asked him if he had contacted the person who infected him and if so what was that conversation like? Manny had not contacted the person that he contracted HIV from but he knew who the person was. Manny was shy but opened up when he spoke about telling his family, friends, and also the day he found out he was HIV positive. “I was scared but then I thought about my parents thinking about them having to bury me.” Manny began to cry telling his story. “I didn’t want that for my parents, but they were supportive, I didn’t loose family but I lost friends and that hurt. Even if it was out of ignorance it still hurt you know.”
As he cried I heard a woman’s voice from the audience say, “It’s okay baby.” With those words Manny gained composure and I could tell the woman’s words soothed him. Right after that another voice out the crowed a male one said, “I’m proud of you.” Manny eyes now dried sat up straight and his confidence was in full stride again. Later on I found out those voices were from his mom and dad who I met and spoke with after the discussion. They came out to support Manny and his debut on stage, they spoke so highly of their son. “I support my son and I love my son.” Manny’s dad chimed in and then is mom said with ease, “my son was down when he found out about his status, parents should not kick their children while they are down, they may be upset because we as parents hurt too, but that’s the time when they need mommy and daddy not a judge.” I loved Manny’s courage and willingness to speak out and I adored his parents. If you had to point out what HIV looked like would you pick out Manny from the crowd?
The night went on and the vibrant Malina Fisher was up next to perform. When I first met Malina I instantly found her personalty vibrant, she walked in confident and I noticed a little shy boy no older than four or five trailing closely behind her. “Hi I’m Malina and this is Luigi, he calls himself Luigi because he is in love with the Mario brothers.” Malina was speaking of her son, Malina’s story was one that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing because her story is often untold. Take a look at the clip below…
Malina is a mother and when she found out she was HIV positive she was breast feeding her son at the time. “My mother and baby were with me when I found out, I thought I was going to the doctor for a routine check up and the doctor told me I had HIV. I had just breastfed my baby. The doctor said he was going to run the test again and asked if I wanted my mother to come in the room with me because she had my son. I told him yeah and the test came back positive again.” Malina began to cry. “I had just taken the test not even four months ago and I was negative, and now I’m positive. All I thought about was my baby because it was time for him to eat again, and then I thought does he have it? I cried my eyes out because I realized that I could have passed it on to my son who had nothing to do with any of this.”
Malina did not pass the virus on to her son he is negative. As we sat on the panel and spoke more Malina would often lean over or excuse herself from the panel to check on little “Luigi.” I asked Malina why did she become an activist? “Honestly I fell into, but I don’t ever want anyone to have to go through this. There is so much that comes with it, taking meds everyday, the sweating, diarrhea, shivers, headaches, some of it is a reaction to the meds. So I speak out because I don’t want anyone else to get HIV.” If you saw Malina with her son playing in the park, would you pick her out from the crowd as someone who is HIV positive?
The man of the hour was up next, Brenden Ortiz. He was the reason why we were all here, the reason why people came out to hear the stories of others living with HIV. Brenden is a sweetheart but a DIVA (in a good way). He is confident about who he is and is not afraid to tell his story of how he contracted HIV. I remember speaking with Brenden after reading his book and we clicked. His passion for educating the public about HIV is evident, but it’s the delivery that always stops you dead in your tracks because he knows how to make you listen. Check out a clip of his story below…
Before we got to the panel discussion, Marco a staff member at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) spoke and gave the audience a lot of useful information. The Brooklyn location (475 Atlantic Avenue) is a new location for AHF the provide free condoms, free on site HIV testing, and they also have pharmacy located on the first floor. He introduced a young man Steven who was apart of the AHF staff, who was so moved by the monologues that he came up to share his story. This was an impromptu performance but once Steven started speaking I understood exactly why Marco decided to ask him to come up. Steven contracted HIV from his mother, his story is one that a lot of people forget to mention when talking about HIV. People usually assume that to be HIV positive you must have had unprotected sex and contracted it that way.
After sharing his story I asked him to join the panel discussion. Because his story was different from the panel my questions for him switched a little. Steven never knew life before being HIV positive because he has had it his whole life. I asked him if had he forgiven his mother and also how was life for him growing up? “Well growing up…looking back I did notice certain things now like me being sick and going in the hospital more than other kids. I was raised by my grandmother who basically saved my life, when I was born I was very sick, I almost died. As far as forgiving my mother, I have. I haven’t had that conversation with her because she passed but I have forgiven her. In the beginning I wanted to know why out of all her kids was I the one to get HIV. I was upset and angry about it but this has been my life. I have always taken medication, I have always lived with the virus.”
The night ended with me asking the panel one last question, what was the hope for their lives? Each of them all took turns answering, “I want to have kids and be married.” Manny answered with a smile. “I want to have more kids, I like being a mom, my son is a little rugrat but I do want more.” Malina said while peeking over to her son who was playing in the back. “I want a family, to be married, and to just live. To keep doing what I’m doing being an activist, writing, and everything else. I just want to keep going.” Brenden said as he smiled. I learned so much in those few hours hearing the stories from these three beautiful and courageous souls. We all as a people need to be educated about all sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections. In this case ignorance is not bliss its a matter of life and death.
I also walked away feeling included, I always wanted to help with educating people about HIV but I think I viewed it as me fighting for other people and getting their stories told. Because I am HIV negative I thought it was a them and me thing. After attending this event I understood I wasn’t fighting for people living with HIV alone, I was fighting for my life as well. People who are HIV positive are not separate from people who are negative, once we all realize this we can move forward to create a place where people who are positive can be open and speak up. The day was filled love and understanding, I came in only knowing Brendan and left making new friends. Some people in the audience openly shared their stories of being HIV positive with me and othesr were there to show support. The room transformed into a sacred space that allow judgement not to enter. HIV has no face, it does not discriminate, and does not care if you are a good or a bad person. Brenden started a movement and my prayer is that it will become international and knowing Brenden it will. Thank you Brenden for allowing me to take part in this event, thank you to all the participants who openly shared their lives with me, you answered all my questions even when they made you uncomfortable, and even when they made you cry. Each of you have touched my heart and I take will take your stories with me forever.
Thank you to Marco, (staff from AHF) so kind and warm. I am sure you will be seeing me soon because we gots work to do! And last but not least, to the people who came because they wanted to support, learn, and be in the room. Thank you! Keep coming out to support events like this because by you educating yourself you can educate others. Take a look at some pictures from the event below…