Coming Out: Lolisa Gibson-Hunte
The first in a series exploring the lives of people who have chosen to be out about their positive HIV status.
Lolisa Gibson-Hunte was a teenager living in Wilmington, Del., when she had a series of health problems, including esophagitis and shingles. Her doctor recommended that she get tested for HIV. "I didn't know what 'HIV' stood for," she said, "but I knew I wasn't positive!"
When she came home from school one day, her mother said the doctor's office had called several times. Thinking little of it, Gibson-Hunte began watching TV. The phone rang. Her doctor was on the line, asking her to come into the office immediately. When she told him she didn't drive and asked him to tell her over the phone why he was calling, the doctor told her that her HIV test result had come back positive.
"My mother was on the other phone downstairs," Gibson-Hunte recalls. "After he told me I was positive, I blacked out and went into my own world. I didn't mind my mother hearing the results, because my main concern at the time was that I was going to die."
Her doctor made Gibson-Hunte an appointment with an HIV specialist. She was sure that the specialist would tell her the test result was a mistake. Instead the specialist spent the visit explaining concepts such as viral load and T-cell counts. Her test results revealed a viral load above 100,000 copies, or virus particles, and a T-cell--also called CD4--count of 115. She left the office with three prescriptions and immediately began taking HIV medicines.
"I was confused by some of the things the specialist told me," Gibson-Hunte says. "I started doing research about what HIV was, and I found out I wasn't the only one living with it. It took me about six months to really begin to understand what I was dealing with." Eventually Gibson-Hunte determined that she was likely born with HIV.
After learning that many other people were living with HIV, Gibson-Hunte began talking to other young women at the clinic who were HIV positive. She began to feel less alone, and she volunteered at an AIDS service organization. "I wanted to get involved because, in my research, I learned that one of the age groups most affected by HIV are young people, 13 to 24 years old. That included me, my brother, all my friends. But none of us knew anything about HIV."
Determined to ensure that young people had the information they needed, Gibson-Hunte began working full time for an AIDS service organization in Wilmington and helped establish Delaware's first needle-exchange program.
Like many others living with HIV, Gibson-Hunte's path toward living openly took time. A young woman she met at the HIV clinic asked Gibson-Hunte to speak at a World AIDS Day event. "I was 21," Gibson-Hunte says, "and I told her I couldn't do that. No one in my family knew my HIV status at the time except my mom. But I changed my mind, and I went ahead and did it. That was the first time I was able to speak to strangers and tell my story. It felt good, like a breath of fresh air or like something had been lifted from my shoulder. I decided I wanted to do more, and I started telling my family members about my HIV status."
Moving to New York in 2008, Gibson-Hunte began working for New York City's AIDS Housing Network, helping with counseling, testing and needle-exchange services. "I started to get involved in doing interviews for magazines like POZ. I felt like I wanted to get out and touch more people who were positive." In 2008 Gibson-Hunte participated in a speaking tour across the United Kingdom that was sponsored by the Student Stop AIDS Campaign and Dance4Life.
An important milestone in her journey toward openness and self-acceptance occurred when she appeared on a World AIDS Day panel back home at the Delaware high school where she graduated. "It was going to be attended by a lot of people I know, people who didn't know I was positive," she says of the event, which attracted folks from all over the state. "At first I said, 'I can't do that.' But I decided it was important to reach people I know and tell them what this virus really is."
Today she is married to an HIV-negative man and has a son, born in September 2009, who is also HIV negative. "By the time my son was born, I was educated about what I needed to do to prevent him from becoming infected," she says.
Living openly with HIV has allowed Gibson-Hunte to become the person she aspired to be. "When I learned my status, I didn't even know what 'HIV' stood for. I couldn't find anyone to talk to, and everyone I talked to was secretive, just like I was," she remembers. "I wanted to be the person I needed when I found out I was HIV positive. I want everyone who tested HIV positive to see that you can be HIV positive and still be healthy and what you want to be. And also, for people who are HIV negative, I want to help wake them up because HIV can happen to anyone."
Excerpted from the Black AIDS Institute's 2013 State of AIDS Report, "Light at the End of the Tunnel: Ending AIDS in Black America."