Two years ago, in the privacy of his own home, then 26-year-old Eddie Wiley and a few close friends decided to take a rapid HIV test to comfort another pal hesitant about being tested. Wiley had already taken a test three months prior, which was negative, but wanted to support his nervous friend. He was also ready to console any of his buddies if any of their tests revealed a positive result. But in a sad twist, it was only Wiley’s test that was positive.
Not only was Wiley devastated at the results, but he also felt like a fraud. As a linkage-to-care coordinator in Memphis at the time, he was responsible for connecting people newly diagnosed with HIV to medical care, and as Black gay man who often counseled other Black MSM (men who have sex with men) about the disease, he was more than familiar with the risks and the statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 2 African-American gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
“I felt like I let my community down. I felt like I was a failure and a hypocrite. I was educating my community about condoms and less risky sexual habits to prevent infections,” says Wiley. “But I realized I wasn’t telling them not to become positive, I was telling them—and myself—just try to not become positive.”
Wiley already suffered from depression before his diagnosis, so after finding out he had HIV, he completely shut down and left town for a week, not telling anyone where he was or when he’d return. But he knew he needed to come back, get himself together and get treatment. Wiley initially started his career in HIV/AIDS because he’d loss a close relative several years ago to the disease and then several friends, so as a person who naturally loved to help others, he knew he needed to go back to his community and continue his advocacy work. He went back home and completely changed his life. He received counseling, started his HIV medication, took up yoga, and took a holistic approach to his physical health.
However, it took Eddie two years to feel comfortable enough to tell others he had HIV. It was only last August that he began talking about his status. “I prayed about it and God told me that my story would inspire others,” he says. “HIV gave me a platform to talk about the disease. People who look like me are still dying so I decided to use my voice to help my community.”
Now, Wiley supervises an outreach program in Memphis on HIV prevention and co-chairs the local planning body for the Ryan White Program. He is also a student at the University of Memphis working on his masters in public health. As the number of HIV cases among the Black community continue to rise – in 2014, 44 percent of estimated new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. were among African-Americans, who comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population – Wiley continues to advise the people of Memphis on HIV/AIDS risks, prevention methods like pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP (anti-HIV medication that keeps HIV-negative people from becoming infected), and the many HIV treatment options that are allowing people to live long, healthy lives. He says it’s the stigma and lack of education regarding HIV/AIDS that’s taking a toll on the Black community. “HIV used to be known as the gay disease but heterosexuals are being diagnosed. They think, ‘Well, I’m not gay so I can’t get it, or I’ve been married for 30 years so I can’t get it.’ You still have to protect yourself because you’re not with your partner 24 hours a day,” he says.
Wiley’s journey has made him realize why he was put on this earth—to be a fierce advocate in the HIV/AIDS struggle. “I’m living with HIV and constantly learning and growing. I’m not a victim and my story is not an unfamiliar one. It’s the tale of someone who talked about HIV every damn day and still became infected,” Wiley says. “I’ll continue to work in this field to help others with HIV seek treatment and live a normal life. And I’ll keep telling young brothers and sisters to protect themselves. But my proudest moment will be the day that I’m in the unemployment line because that means there are no new infections.”
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LaShieka Hunter is a freelance writer and editor based on Long Island, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter.