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By Montee Lopez
In 2017, I launched a project with The New Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tenn. called “Positive While POZitive,” designed to give insight into the lives of HIV-Positive people living full lives after learning they were infected with the virus which, left untreated, develops into AIDS.
My brainchild was born seven months after I tested positive. December 16, 2016 is a day I will never forget. It was an unwanted Christmas gift I couldn’t exchange.
In the months prior to launching the project, I dealt with my new reality mostly alone. Receiving the results. Learning of criminal penalties attached to the virus. Getting access to treatment. That first and future doctor appointments — I did those all alone. I knew other people were probably going through similar things. I needed someone to talk to about this, someone to share their experiences with me.
Then, it dawned on me—I’m a journalist. I listen to people’s stories daily. That’s how I make my bread and butter.
From there, I started my research about HIV/AIDS assistance in Memphis. I wanted to talk to people who could connect me with others willing to share their truths and realities with not just me, but potentially the world.
One of the first people I interviewed was Mrs. Mildred Richard-Edwards, who’d been diagnosed with AIDS after her HIV infection nearly 20 prior. Through her personal testimony and work with HIV services, she proudly told me she “sold life.”
That’s what she did until the very end. To my heartbreak, she died in May 2021.
I went on to interview several other people, many who happened to be Black cisgender heterosexual women. This circumstantial detail made the project even more poignant; a disease once reduced to being a gay man’s problem clearly became a straight Black woman’s issue as well.
Through their words, they spoke life and how rich it was, and how much richer it had the potential to be. For them, looking back at what might have been was not an option.
From the gay men I interviewed, there were constant feelings of rejection; they faced hurtful reactions from possible romantic partners, especially those who weren’t armed with knowledge about HIV, its spread, and protective actions.
Still, they rose. One helps lobby for sex education and revision of criminal exposure laws. Another learned to embrace his family and friends. They found purpose within pain.
Amazingly, so did I.
Five years later, I look back on my work and think about its impact on my audience and myself. Through others sharing their experiences, I learned how to love and embrace myself through the examples of others. Who would’ve thought this project would’ve developed into something so life changing and eye opening? There’s so much to learn and so many people’s stories which are worth a listen. I can say one thing definitely, though— an HIV/AIDS diagnosis is not a death sentence.
It’s not, and these few stories prove this daily. Learning of your status is not the end. And I will continue my commitment to reminding others (and myself) about staying positive while POZitive.
Montee Lopez is a news producer from Memphis, Tennessee, based out of Birmingham, Alabama. He also provides contributing reports to various publications on topics ranging from health to social justice.