Positive Thoughts

My poz heroes

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How writing about people living with HIV inspired profound change in my life

by Desirée Guerrero

About 18 months ago, I was in a dark place. After painfully separating from the love of my life, I felt not only wholly broken but also scared as hell. And I needed a job, pronto. After all, I was a single mom and had mouths to feed.

After weeks of job searching and turned down by Target and a local RV dealership, my sense of self-worth withered. I was on the verge of turning 40, jobless, broke, and very, very sad. At that point, I lacked the motivation even to try to apply for another crappy job that I didn’t want. But then what the hell was I going to do?

Well, I did the only thing you can do when life has you by the huevos, and you’re doing the best you can, despite the overwhelming odds against you at the moment — I left it to the Universe. I consciously put out this “wish” of sorts; this hope, this prayer: Let me find a job that needs me as much as I need it, and that will grow into something more.

Another couple of weeks passed. Still nothing. And then one day I saw the ad for an “editorial assistant” with a telecommuting option (basically, single mom heaven). I have always loved writing and been interested in journalism but never had an opportunity to pursue it. So with zero professional experience and only an old blog to show examples of my writing, I went for it. And somehow, out of 2,000 some-odd applicants, I landed the job.

It indeed seemed that the Universe had answered my call. Within a couple of months I was promoted to assistant editor, and a few months after that to an associate editor, now writing and editing for three national publications. One of these is Plus magazine, a health mag that focuses on all aspects of living with HIV — from the latest treatment breakthroughs to discussing stigma and mental health.

Of course, like most of us, I had known a few people affected by HIV in my life, but sadly, growing up in the ’80s, before the development of today’s effective antiretroviral therapy, you often found out too late. The reality is, up until today, stigma still prevails, and many people living with the condition fear “coming out” as poz. And many aren’t truly able to do so safely in their lives.

However, there are many others who bravely publicize their status as a direct response to this stigma. One of the first people I interviewed for Plus was Eric Leonardos, a Los Angeles-based celebrity hairstylist. On a whim, Leonardos took an opportunity to appear on the Logo reality dating series, Finding Prince Charming. Not only did handsome and charming Leonardos “win” the show thanks to the show’s featured eligible bachelor, Robert Sepulveda Jr., he also made history by opening up about being poz in an episode.

Though the relationship ended (but on friendly terms), the impact of Leonardos’ coming out on television continues to resonate. Not only did Leonardos tell the world he wasn’t ashamed to be living with HIV, but the fact that Sepulveda didn’t let his status (or fear of the stigma attached to dating someone who is poz) dissuade him from wanting to pursue a relationship with Leonardos was monumental.

Since coming out poz, Leonardos hasn’t only continued to thrive in his career in the world of beauty and fashion; he too has become a quietly fierce activist for people living with HIV and other marginalized people. He is often asked to speak at events and share his story, which — as a gay conversion therapy survivor from the Texas Bible Belt — includes much more than just his diagnosis. Leonardos’ brave decision to go public lead to remarkable things in his life, but also led to a significant change in my own.

It was through getting to know Leonardos and his story that the perspective on my situation began to change. The things he dealt with from an early age, then overcame and persevered, knocked me off my “pity pot”. Sure, as a teen parent and abuse survivor, I suffered some harsh realities, but Leonardos’ story inspired me. I could relate.

As two people who had different cultural upbringings, I was surprised at my connection to him. The shame and rejection he felt as a gay teen sent away to be “cured” weren’t dissimilar to what I had experienced, at least emotionally, as a frightened pregnant teen from a Catholic family sent away to a continuation school.

And there’s the all-powerful stigma. The paralyzing fear of the world treating you like less. Though I’m not claiming first-hand knowledge of dealing with HIV stigma firsthand, Leonardos’ story is compelling and relatable.

I have now interviewed dozens of other poz folks, some famous, some not. Many people busting their ass every day in the trenches fighting HIV, but each with an inspiring story. Those people are thriving, not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves. They have demonstrated to me and countless others that no matter what hand life has dealt you, a positive attitude and an open heart and mind — and a caring support team — are all you need to make it through.

Desirée Guerrero is the associate editor of Plus magazine. This column is a project of Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, TheBody.com and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites at http://hivplusmag.com, http://positivelyaware.com, http://poz.com, and http://thebody.com for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.

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