Emory Report
December 5, 2005
Volume 58, Number 13


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December 5 , 2005
Personal story caps AIDS Awareness Week

By eric rangus

The first question following Sheryl Johnson’s AIDS Awareness Week keynote address, Wednesday, Nov. 30, came from a student seated near the front in Winship Ballroom.

Did you ever confront the man, your ex-boyfriend, who infected you with the HIV virus? Johnson replied that she had. She sent him a scathing letter and she repeated one of her lines from it.
“Thank you very much, you’ve killed me,” she said.

That was April 1996 and, as the primarily student crowd saw first hand, Johnson is still very much alive. She eats right, exercises and takes her medications. She also lectures frequently about the struggles of living with HIV.

“I try very hard not to say I am HIV positive, because I don’t want HIV to define me, not ever,” said Johnson, community outreach program manager for the AIDS Survival Project. “So I always say, I live with the virus. I have the virus. I am infected.”

Johnson was the keynote speaker for Volunteer Emory’s (VE) AIDS Awareness Week, which ran Nov. 28–Dec. 2. It included informational events, a VE service trip to Project Open Hand, a screening of the film Philadelphia, and “Quilt on the Quad,” the display of the 400-panel AIDS Memorial Quilt on Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day).

Johnson went beyond her own experience and related the stories of others who have lived—and died—with AIDS. Her point was that a person’s struggle with the disease is a personal one. “HIV is an individual journey,” she said. “It is not the end of the line, far from it. It is the beginning.”

Johnson’s beginning came many years before she was diagnosed herself. One of her close friends contracted AIDS and succumbed quickly. “It was one of the greatest shocks of my life,” she said. “I just wasn’t prepared, number one, that anyone I knew personally had this terrible disease, number two that anyone black would have this disease, and number three that it would take them out so quickly.

“But it was an eye-opening experience for me, and it was the beginning of my journey with HIV/AIDS and understanding that I needed to open my eyes and open my mind to the idea that maybe this thing can touch anybody,” she continued.

But this knowledge still didn’t protect her. Her boyfriend contracted the virus through unprotected gay sex and passed it on to her. Johnson said the issue of bisexuality among black men (called the “down low”) is rarely discussed—and didn’t even have a name 10 years ago, but it is an increasingly serious threat to the health of both men and women and one of the most common avenues in the spread of HIV.

“There are still a lot of people in denial,” she said. “You’ve got to protect yourself if you are going to be sexually active, each and every time. I’m a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We used to do things and not worry about them. You don’t have that luxury. And we have to deal with the ‘down low.’ There are few studies and people say it doesn’t exist. Look at me, I exist.”