My "College" Years
Last updated: October 2023
One of the biggest hurdles we face when diagnosed with HIV is the disruption of our plans for the future. From the mundane to the majestic, every image of what lies ahead gets totally fogged up.
I grew up assuming I would attend college. My Mom worked hard to put herself through school, and, from an early age, my big brother and I were informed how things would go. Get good grades through high school then it is off to college. The 80s movies I grew up on made college look like a ton of fun, so it wasn't a hard sell by any means.
My masters plan went up in smoke in the 6th grade when I was diagnosed with HIV. I was actually kicked out of school with just 2 weeks of my elementary tenure remaining. I had been at the same school since kindergarten.
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Successes beyond survival
In the pre-treatment days of 1987, Mom's academic goal for me shifted: first, she had to kick some ass to get me back in school, after that she simply hoped I would live through junior high and high school.
Well, not only did I manage to graduate from high school... I did so with honors!
I snagged not one, but 2 categories in the Senior Superlatives (Best Personality and Best All Around) section of the yearbook. I had also been crowned Homecoming King my senior year. Which is fitting because hemophilia, the bleeding disorder I was born with, has often been referred to as "The Royal Disease."
After high school, before "college"
After high school people would ask me what college I was attending. That made me feel so self-conscious. I was still living at home with no real plans beyond learning my synths, and figuring out the best way to pick up a spare at bowling league with my dad.
When I opened up about living with HIV at age 20, things changed. I didn't know that a new outlook on HIV was the missing piece of my life's puzzle. It was always the piece that I would frantically sweep back under the rug if a corner of it came into view.
Finding support in the HIV community
My doctor was thrilled about the turnaround and sent me some issues of POZ Magazine. That was like getting my first set of books in college. I was blown away that HIV had a magazine dedicated to it, and loved reading the columnist's varied insights on life with HIV. Not too long after, I joined their ranks. Their crack editing staff really helped me hone and own my newfound passion for writing.
A lot of the new friends I met online through my website and at POZ were also HIV positive. And, initially, they were mostly gay men. Which was cool. Thankfully, I never put a barrier between how I thought of myself and how I contracted HIV through tainted blood products, and someone who contracted HIV sexually or otherwise.
As a teen, I always heard about the initial high-risk groups, which included gay men and people with hemophilia. My love of synthpop and my HIV status provided a feeling of kinship with the gay community long before I started carrying business cards with my HIV status on them.
The gay community really helped me believe that I'd land a loving partner and helped me become a better writer, educator, and human being.
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So, even though I didn't go to college in the traditional sense, those learning years in my early 20s really set me up nicely for what was next.
I met my partner, Gwenn, when she was attending graduate school at James Madison University. When she was an undergrad, a young woman with HIV came to her sorority to talk about living with HIV. That moment sparked Gwenn's interest in HIV.
So, with us both being sexual health educators living just one hour apart, we were destined to meet. Really, without HIV involved, it is highly unlikely we would ever crossed paths.
Gwenn and I fell in love and our friends encouraged us to educate together as a sero-diverse couple. During our first talk students had so many questions. Afterward, we both felt comfortable discussing our new, exciting private life in public. There is nothing I enjoy more than traveling with Gwenn to educate about stigma, the importance of testing, how I remain healthy, and how Gwenn remains HIV negative.
Learning at your own pace
The moral of this story? We all learn at our own pace. Life lessons often arrive by necessity, but the best foundation for learning is having a comfort in your own skin. To a certain degree, I had that with HIV before I spoke out. I just protected that secret, because I didn't trust how the outside world would respond.
I am so grateful for all of the professors without degrees that took me under their wing when I was ready to go to my own version of college. And I have immense love and respect for all of my fellow classmates without a classroom that I have met along the way, each of us helping one another to tear down the walls of stigma that had kept us isolated.
Thanks, as always, for reading my thoughts. I'm off to go throw a hat into the air now!
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