Every February, the prevention team at Mazzoni Center observes National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day with educational programming, outreach activities and HIV testing at events and in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. February 7 has passed but, for people living with HIV, every day brings awareness to the virus and the stigma that still exist.
Another day we celebrated in February is Valentine’s Day. For those who are single it can be a day to dread. This holiday can even be harder for those living with HIV, as love, romance and relationships may initially take a backseat to their health and well-being. We hear of people being linked to medication and care programs but often don’t hear stories about the work it takes to get back to just living life. I recently chatted with a young couple to explore how they developed a relationship and how together they fight to overcome HIV stigma.
Chris was sitting with the counselor in a private office at Mazzoni Center when he was told the news that his confirmation test for HIV was positive.
“I didn’t even cry when they told me. My first thought was, I will never have a boyfriend and that I would die alone,” Chris said. For many young people who are newly diagnosed, the life they envisioned and planned may feel over. This couldn’t be further from the case. The quicker a person gets into care to manage their health, the sooner they will take control back from the virus.
Stigma and lack of access to health care have an impact on the virus and how people fight it. Over the last few years, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health reports that of 25 percent of new HIV infections are occurring within those under 25. For young people of color, that number is even higher, and compounded by the fact that many of those who are positive may not follow up to receive care. The stigma and fear around HIV can sometimes cause people to deny their test results and wait until they are sick enough to take action.
This is why linkage-to-care programs like the one offered at Mazzoni Center are part of the government’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy. The program is designed to support clients through every step of the process: from receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis to understanding the implications of the virus and accessing the many resources that are available to them. Chris found Mazzoni Center’s Linkage to Care program to be supportive every step of the way. He was linked to a clinic close to his home that already has had an impact on his life.
“The clinic that I go to is very supportive of me and helps me think more positively of my situation,” he says.
Within months of getting care, Chris was ready to get back into the dating scene.
“I made a mistake, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living my life,” he said.
Today, social-dating apps and websites have made it easier for those who are LGBT, HIV-positive and HIV-negative to interact with one another. However, stigma can create barriers to finding love.
When Chris began to date, he made the not-so-easy decision to disclose his status.
“I needed to be upfront at the start,” he said, noting that he quickly learned that not everyone was comfortable with his status. “They usually stop talking to me after I tell them. One person at least had the guts to tell me straight up, ‘I don’t want to catch anything,’ which was better than silence for me.”
Still, he wasn’t discouraged from dating. Along the process he met Mike, the guy he would eventually call his boyfriend.
“We were texting and when he first disclosed to me I didn’t understand because of how he texted it, but once I understood it, I was totally OK with it,” Mike said. He added, “After we had that conversation, I educated myself on HIV and then every day after I asked him a bunch of questions about it all.”
Communication is essential in any relationship, as it provides an opportunity for us to be clear about who we are and what our boundaries are. In Chris’ and Mike’s relationship, communication provided the opportunity to dispel misinformation. Their relationship started slowly: “We had sleepovers and would go out on dates but we didn’t have deeper intimacy until later on, and even that was a process,” Mike said.
When it came time to talk about sex, it took some pushing from Mike. “It was something I wanted to do,” he explained, “but Chris was hesitant because he was still worried about my health. He was concerned something may go wrong, like a condom breaking, which is why I told Chris that I knew what I was getting myself into and that I wanted to go to the doctor for more information.”
At the doctor’s office, they learned about PrEP, which stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. PrEP has been proven highly effective at preventing HIV transmission when taken as directed. PrEP is a pill taken every day with regular medical follow-ups at your health-care provider.
Mike finds the daily ritual to be a bonding experience.
“I’ve been taking it every morning with my boyfriend at the same time he is taking his medication. It’s been a way for us to know that we are in this together.”
PrEP is available through many health-care providers, including Mazzoni’s health center at 809 Locust St. Some insurance plans cover PrEP and those without coverage may qualify for assistance.
A healthy relationship involves trust, patience and the understanding that life is a journey you take together. Chris shares this sentiment and thought about his relationship: “Mike gives me hope that I didn’t have after I learned that I have HIV; things feel the way it did before I tested positive.”
Mike also has a new outlook on HIV: “Many people look at people with HIV as diseased or defective, but they rarely know people who are living with it,” he said. “When I look at my boyfriend, I see a person who I want to be with for the rest of my life.”
To learn more about PrEP, HIV-prevention programs, peer-support programs for young men of color and other programs and services for LGBT individuals and people living with HIV/AIDS, visit www.mazzonicenter.org.
Sean Laughlin is a youth-education specialist on Mazzoni Center’s education and prevention team, where he helps young people learn social skills and tools to negotiate risky situations and advocate for their health.