I would not ever consider myself reckless, risky or even unsafe. But these are the adjectives that many in the world might use when describing my sex life prior to being diagnosed with HIV.

At a distance

Sure, I am a gay man. I had multiple sex partners, but it was not risky to me. I used condoms almost every time. And I certainly asked every sexual partner if they were negative. That has to count for something, I thought. And so HIV would never happen to me, I believed.

But, I was terrified and admittedly very uneducated about HIV. I was clear with my desire to never want to catch it. I even would block those people on dating apps and websites that said they were positive—actions I viewed as the best protection to keep myself negative, surely. I still thought I could beat this epidemic thing from happening to me. And I considered myself someone who supported the HIV cause—it just was not my own cause. I wore a red ribbon.

I was wrong. On December 18, 2011, I was exposed to HIV by someone who did not know that they were infected. I had sex with someone who told me and believed himself that he was HIV-negative. But, they were wrong. They were a statistic, and had no idea of how infectious they actually were. They were part of the CDC stat “1 of 6 unaware” of their infection. I, likewise, was unaware of something happening—that that drunken night was the beginning of my HIV activism. I was seroconverting into a full-blown HIV activist.

Who do I tell?

Individuals that identity as being gay usually can remember in vivid detail the moment that they come out publicly about their sexuality. It a mixture of emotions and experiences for most of us. The same is true for those living with HIV. Some of us are able to start disclosing our HIV status without worrying.

I am certainly able to talk openly about my journey. And besides one pretty terrible email I received from a former youth pastor, I have not felt overly stigmatized because of my health journey. But many do enjoy that experience and I certainly feel lucky about it. Maybe it is not just luck?

I wonder if the reason that I feel a bit less stigmatized is because my own journey does not include feeling ashamed. The day that I found out that I am HIV positive, I traveled to my hometown and looked my family in the eyes and said those words: “I’m HIV-positive.” It has been the hardest day of my life, thus far. But, I wanted to be so honest that maybe I would lose some of the fear of dying that I felt. If HIV is not a death sentence then I had to do exactly as my father advised me to do on the night of my diagnosis: keep living!

Encouraging works

In my journey living with HIV in the Southern United States—the part of the country that is hit the hardest currently in the epidemic—there is a strange phenomenon that I witness surprisingly often. I witness the birth of small, home-grown HIV activists from individuals just like me that are diagnosed as HIV-positive, many times participating in the same activities that others have done but escaped the HIV scarlet letters just days and weeks and months after their initial diagnosis.

How? Well, that is the strange part of the phenomenon that I witness. It starts simply. It continues easily. But the effects are profound. It happens organically when someone newly diagnosed is offered encouragement instead of judgment. Injecting the most love and encouragement we can muster to these individuals during their time of discovery of how to actually live with HIV has the most opportunity to get these young people excited about wanting to share their stories and journey with others in their local community, and in their friends and family circles. Their stories, faces, and honesty bring the epidemic out of the sky and into local homes, bars, schools, dorm rooms and bedrooms.

"I am now living well because HIV is in my body. I learned to grow up quicker. I learned to give a damn about others. And I am learning what it means to value life so much."

They each begin down the road of being the catalyst for renewed local hope, prevention of HIV, fundraisers, policy-makers and healthy living advocates and their peers listen to them. It all starts from that simple encouragement we offer. It is a moment that only someone living with HIV can truly understand. And there is not enough research that can be done on the true impact one person can have on an entire community. It is not something that can ever be counted, but I know it works. I am a product of this phenomenon.

Fresh eyes

Of everything that I am currently thankful for in my own life, I have finally found peace in my own skin. HIV ruined my life. But it was a life that I believe needed to be ruined.

Although, I would not ever wish anyone to live with the virus, I am now living well because HIV is in my body. I learned to grow up quicker. I learned to give a damn about others. And I am learning what it means to value life so much. It is because of the fighters, friends and loved ones of others that previously lived well with HIV—backing the pain and struggles during the early years—that I live freely today. Long-term survivors and those that have passed on from the effects of the epidemic gave a gift to me that will never be taken away: the ability for me to sometimes forget I am HIV positive, and the reminder that no matter what, I’m still Josh.