Art Taylor is 54. He has a box full of his friends’ obituaries. They all died of AIDS.
“None of these friends got where I got,” Taylor said. “Almost 20 years later, I’m still alive.”
Being HIV positive, Taylor might be one of the few survivors among his old friends, but as an African-American gay man, he is not alone in the U.S.
In three years, half of all Americans living with HIV will be 50 or older, according to a study by the University of Washington’s School of Social Work. The study, released in November, shows that about 15 percent of new infections and almost a third of those currently living with HIV are age 50 and older.
Taylor was diagnosed HIV positive in the early 1990s. Feeling devastated, he said he couldn’t tell anyone about it.
“Back in those days, we had those words: You get the package,” he said referring to the slang for HIV. “I’ve heard people say ‘That bitch got the package.’ I didn’t want to be that person, so I just shut up.”
Keeping a secret like that wasn’t easy, and four years after his diagnosis, Taylor said he finally told a friend he trusted would keep his secret.
One day another friend of his said, “I heard you had the package.” That was when Taylor realized that his friend had let the news out.
Taylor’s concern that people would judge him makes sense.
Older LGBT people have lived through a time when neither their sexual identity nor being HIV positive was accepted, said Virginia Quinonez, associate professor and chair of the Counseling Department at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. One result, she said, is that older LGBT adults are often silent about living with HIV.
Taylor came out to his family almost 10 years ago. He said his partner at the time was a major reason.
Taylor told his partner about his disease on their first date. After a few questions to make sure Taylor was taking care of himself, his partner said: “OK, so we got this over with. I’m not afraid of you anymore.” Then they started dating, and they were together for five years before, Taylor said, they “grew apart.”
One day his niece asked him, “Uncle, why is he [Taylor’s partner] always here? Am I to call him uncle?”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, then he is your uncle,” Taylor said.
Then his other relatives started asking him why they were not the first one to know.
“Everyone knew I was gay, but I feel like everybody at this point needs a confirmation,” he said.
Taylor told some of his relatives about his disease, but he kept it a secret from his sister until last year.
“We’ve had enough drama and death in our family. There are only the two of us now. I didn’t know how she would take it. I was afraid she would be, like, ‘Damn, I’m gonna lose my brother, too.’”
His sister took it very well, because some relatives had already told her, so she had the time to process, Taylor said. She was only mad that Taylor hadn’t told her earlier, he said.
Taylor said he is grateful that his family took his sexuality and disease very well. Not everyone is as lucky as he is.
Those living with HIV are more likely to have experienced physical abuse by a partner, friend or family member than those who are HIV negative, the study said.
According to the study, those with HIV are more likely to have depression and anxiety, compared with those who are HIV negative.
Quinonez said LGBT seniors of color may suffer more isolation.
“In some communities of color, LGBT seniors may experience more homophobia in addition to racism,” she said.
Having support from family and friends is extremely important for LGBT seniors with HIV, Quinonez said.
“Dealing with the disease by themselves is not helpful,” she said. “It is very important for them to reach out to organizations and supporting groups for help.”
Taylor said he used to sit and cry, but he was never depressed, because he just chose to live.
“I saw some friends die horrible. I refuse to be like that,” he said.
Taylor said he has no regrets.
“[Having HIV] might be my saving grace. I’ve always been wondering if it hadn’t been for HIV, what could have happened to me? God saves you by blocking your path sometimes. I tried to look at the bright side of everything.”
Taylor said he believes everyone in life has a purpose, and having a purpose makes him want to live even more.
“The purpose of my life is to help,” he said.
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