“Hi. My name is Moni, and I have HIV.”
Ever since the cat got out of the bag this is how I have to introduce myself. I told one person here in prison — someone I thought I could trust — and they told everyone they could.
Now I can no longer share my status on my own accord — I have to beat my haters to the punch.
I found out I was HIV positive when I was 19 years old and incarcerated for the second time.
I am writing this article as a coming out — my way to help de-stigmatize HIV.
HIV affects more people than stereotypes care to admit. It is not only gay men or drug addicts who shoot up that HIV affects. It is also beautiful Black women like me who just loved the wrong person — a person who did not give me a choice.
In the United States, there are just under 2 million people incarcerated. According to researchers at the University of Washington, the annual number of people with HIV in prisons “ranged from a high of 25,976 in 1998 to a low of 17,146 in 2015.” And the prevalence of HIV is much higher in prison compared to the general U.S. population, about 1.3% to .3%, respectively.
Rates are highest among Black prisoners, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy.
The UW researchers also found that women have a higher prevalence rate of HIV than men. This owes to multiple factors that may disproportionately affect incarcerated women, “including past sexual abuse, exchange of sex for drugs or money, multiple sex partners, low rates of condom use and injection drug use.” When compared to men, incarcerated women also suffer from higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and psychiatric comorbidities, the researchers found.
At first, I felt like getting HIV was a fall from grace. Before my diagnosis, I was a hot commodity that both men and women loved. Then I was someone they feared, someone they considered sick.
But over time, I have learned that when you give people the choice, they may still choose you.
If I have the opportunity to tell someone I have HIV before the rumor mill gets to them, I can talk to them. I can explain that I take medication daily that suppresses the virus. I can explain how undetectable means untransmittable, better known as U=U. With that knowledge, the virus doesn’t scare people as much.
I try to make people understand that fewer and fewer people are dying from HIV. This is not the 1980s, and you don’t die from HIV itself, anyway. HIV weakens your immune system, diminishing your body’s ability to fight off routine illnesses like pneumonia.
But there is hope. Being undetectable means that the your viral load is so low that it doesn’t harm you, and can’t be sexually transmitted.
I am not a big germ. I am not sick. In fact, I hate that word. I am a perfectly healthy eligible young woman with a full life ahead of her.
Sometimes I am afraid of dating in the outside world. If I can barely get a woman in here to look past my HIV, how am I going to get someone in the free world?
Finding out I was positive gave me self-esteem issues. But with every easy acceptance, I am gaining my confidence back. I am starting to love myself even when others don’t. Just because I have HIV doesn’t mean I have to be alone or not have a sex life.
I am still human.
Every face of HIV is different. Mine is Black and beautiful. Oh — and sexy!
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.