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A love letter to Women Living With HIV

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Dear positive women,

I’ve been a great admirer of you for a long time, and your example has helped change my life for the better. I’d like to offer some words in thanks and in celebration of all women who live and love courageously in defiance of HIV and the social and emotional baggage that comes with it. You have inspired me and I expect countless others, both directly and indirectly. I’d also like to share some of my story to give context to my place in the HIV community and express my gratitude.

I am a heterosexual man living with HIV, having medically acquired the virus as a child in the mid 1980s. I grew up very fearful of how I would be treated should my status be revealed, and protected my secret with hypervigilance. For years I expected to fall ill and die, but I somehow stayed reasonably healthy and survived despite being tormented by my own stigma. 

While HIV could never define me, it has been impossible to separate it from my life experience and development. I now share this life with my gorgeous wife and we have two beautiful children. They are all HIV negative. I think of myself now, as a proud, incredibly fortunate, long-term survivor and I’m grateful to be in a position to treasure my place in the community of people living with HIV.

Less than 12 months ago, I finally decided that the right thing for me, was to let go of the secrecy and fears I held around what others might think of me as a person living with HIV. It was a slow process, but I had a lot to heal from. I used Facebook to make a proud public statement revealing my status, and the response from my family, friends and wider community has been overwhelmingly supportive. Living openly also made it easier to take up an exciting employment opportunity with Living Positive Victoria, where I provide peer support to other heterosexual people living with HIV.

To the positive women I know, I owe so muchto all the different ways you’ve shown me how to cope and manage my status, in your proud voices, strong examples and activism. Those of you who, are open and own your status, making yourself visible and proud. As well as educating others, you have helped provide the healing and frame I needed to get to this better place. I naturally looked within the heterosexual community for modelling for how to conduct myself as a person living with HIV. I found in your examples more than a spectacularly diverse and vibrant bunch of women. I found powerful positive speakers and strategic script RE-writers. For me, you have been myth debunkers, stigma warriors and dignified, shame-free disclosers. You have shown such tenacity and leadership in the fight to improve the lives and opportunities of all of us who live with HIV.

And yet I’ve always admired the equal strength and poise I’ve found in you who live secretly, silently, away from “HIV fame”, getting on with the work of being survivors, purposefully exercising the right NOT to disclose. Being mothers, partners, daughters, friends, carers, community stalwarts, allies and peers. You are limit pushers, limit smashers, intrepid travellers, gentle crusaders, providers of inspiration, unflinching artists. Lovers who teach that HIV, in a way, means nothing. You gift a particular richness and decency to our cause by being yourselves.

As women living with HIV you are a minority within a minority, conspicuously out of proportion to the contribution you make. The way you respond (and don’t respond) to the hostility and indifference this virus rouses is creative and kind and redeems humanity. I'm often struck by how amazing this is and how extraordinary you are.

In my humble reckoning, our response to the grand challenge of HIV/AIDS goes to the heart of who we are and who we want to be as individuals and as a global community.

We can respond with love or we can respond with fear. I see you positive women, rising to the challenge and it’s breathtaking. You hold your nerve in the face of the horror and allow love to be your guide. Who could blame you for recoiling in fear, and shrinking into an inward concern for yourselves. Instead you lead us by demonstrating kindness and compassion, and to me you model the best of responses. You show care and respect for yourselves while championing the voiceless and disempowered. And you get active.

I derive comfort from the thought that we are all broken somehow in our humanity. That we are designed to collect bruises and scars on our journey through. We’re often born a little broken and we get more broken along life’s way. Leonard Cohen expresses it perfectly when he sings, “ there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get’s in ”.

Remarkably, you show an outrageous exuberance in your cracks. It’s like the cracks become the icing on your cake. And your laughter, despite your brokenness and pain, shines out to lift us all up, and say “hey, it’s okay, that’s how we are divine”.

 

Positive women, this epidemic just wouldn’t be as interesting without you. Thank you with all my heart.

Anth McCarthy