The South is a hard place to live with HIV. In Western North Carolina, homophobia and the stigma of HIV/AIDS are as prevalent as the mountains and meadows. Larry was a victim of those prevailing attitudes when he first suspected he had AIDS. There were no HIV testing sites anywhere near where he lived. But even if there had been, Larry would not have gone for fear of being stigmatized. Gossip spreads like wildfire in those small towns and he was afraid of being labeled “some sort of queer.”
Feeling sicker every day, Larry knew he had to put shame and fear behind him. After traveling two hours to the Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP), he walked sheepishly through the doors. After getting tested, Larry learned he was HIV+. His viral load had increased to the point where he had AIDS. WNCAP’s Prevention Educator gently broke the news to Larry and they cried together. He hugged Larry and told him he was loved. He assured Larry that he’d be okay — that HIV was no longer a death sentence.
Because Larry was visibly ill, WNCAP was able to get him to an infectious disease specialist the next day. The doctor prescribed a course of anti-retroviral therapy and advised Larry that if he didn’t adhere to the medication, he could die within the year.
Even though Larry was unemployed and had little income, he was not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid in North Carolina. Through a combination of financial assistance and pharmaceutical rebates, WNCAP helped him get his lifesaving medication at no cost.
But healing Larry’s body was only the first step. His case manager, Kevin, recognized that Larry was deeply ashamed of his diagnosis and had fallen into a severe depression. Kevin told Larry that this was a normal emotional response for people recently diagnosed with HIV.
Kevin suggested that Larry attend WNCAP’s biweekly support group for people living with HIV. Larry was hesitant at first, but eventually he decided to go. The support group was life-changing for Larry. He had never met people living with HIV. Not only were these people happy, they were thriving. They openly discussed their status and the challenges they faced living with HIV. One man talked about how his family never accepted him because he was gay and Larry could relate to that.
The support group not only taught Larry how to accept himself and his AIDS diagnosis, it taught him about AIDS advocacy. He learned that WNCAP leads a delegation of staff and clients to Washington, D.C. for an annual, national HIV advocacy conference called AIDS Watch. The more Larry heard about this event, the more he wanted to be part of the delegation.
A few years later, Larry got to go to AIDS Watch. After a 12-hour car ride to Washington, D.C. he was exhausted but prepared to advocate. He shared his story with members of Congress and their staff. He talked and laughed with hundreds of other HIV advocates from around the country. He spoke about how his adherence to treatment led to his viral load becoming undetectable.
WNCAP saved Larry’s life. But they didn’t just give him back his health – they helped him reclaim his purpose, passion, and sense of self.