Living Life Positively...
My name is Pablo Moulden and I grew up in Vienna, Virginia where I went to James Madison High School. When I was 15 I came out to my parents as gay. My dad's initial response sums up how lucky I was to have them as parents which was: "We will always love you. You are our son and that's all that matters". I remember around the same time learning how woefully inadequate our sex education was. When I was a sophomore they actually showed us an old sex ed video from the 90s where they compared people with multiple sex partners to a "piece of chewed gum". A couple years later it was 2009 and I was months away from graduating high school. I went to a LGBT+ youth sexual health education event organized by NOVAM (Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry). That night was the first time I had met an HIV positive person and heard them speak about living with HIV (NOVAM's Face-to-Face program). Half an hour later I was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 17.
I remember my friend Bergit, who I had gone to the event with, took us to get food and offered to share a straw with me. Despite my school's terrible sex ed, I was well educated thanks to NOVAM. But knowing my status, I felt this great shame - like I was a walking biohazard. Despite this stigma, my friend Bergit offered to share her straw without blinking an eye. With that simple action, she implicitly said "You are the same Pablo as before your diagnosis and I love you just the same".
NOVAM eventually drove me to the hospital for both the blood drawal and a week later the results of my confirmatory HIV test which came back conclusively positive. I made sure to call my two partners to disclose my status and tell them to get tested. My ex-boyfriend at the time simply hung up on me after denying everything I said. My friend and casual sex partner was crying over the phone because he was scared for me. He offered to drive all the way from Baltimore to Virginia just to cuddle and be there for me. It baffled me that I was in love with an abuser and not this friend who was trustworthy and caring.
Shortly after I went online to find positive inspiration and I found Pedro Zamora. I watched MTV's documentary "A Tribute to Pedro Zamora". Pedro was a Cuban-American who was also diagnosed with HIV when he was 17 years old. Not long after he ended up on MTV's Real World: San Francisco where he came out on national television as being gay and later HIV positive. He then went on to speak all around the country in public grade schools about his HIV positive status whilst also teaching about seuxal health. He got the Attention of Gerald, Oprah Winfrey and The Wall Street Journal. In 1994 he testified before a congressional hearing about reforming sex education. He told congress
"What we need is the collective will to care about young people and about people with different backgrounds and make sure that one day people grow up in a world without AIDS."
In 1994 he died of AIDS at the age of 22. Pedro became my hero and his story my positive inspiration. He showed me that my status did not make me a slut, that I was worth it and that I could make a difference by speaking up.
Shortly after I was trying to hold back tears in my senior sex-ed class as we went over the STD portion of the lesson. I was also furious because my classmates kept giggling and laughing like this was a waste of their time. I wanted to come out right then and there and shove my HIV status in their face. To show them that this was happening right here in their own communities! But of course I didn't. Afterwards I was walking through the crowded hallways pulling my sleeves down as people bumped into me (despite NOVAM's sex-ed i still felt shame). But even as I was feeling ashamed of my HIV status in that very moment I swore myself two things.
I will not infect anyone with my strain of HIV. My HIV will die with me.
Someday I will come out about my status and come back to my high school to speak about it.
I waited after my brother's wedding before coming out to my parents. When I finally did that summer, it was with my psychiatrist present during a session so that a doctor could reassure my parents that I will be ok. They were broken hearted but very supportive. They came to my doctor appointments with me, helped me remember to take my medicine and much more. That summer I found Justin GoForth who was working for Whitman-Walker Health at the time (HIV services, prevention, education & LGBT specialized non-profit clinic). At that time he had been living with HIV for 25 years. His work and life story inspired me and he become a role model for me along with Pedro. I found many other amazing people at Whitman-Walker who I still think of and inspire me to this day including Juan Carlos Loubriel, Meghan Davies, Miguel Mejia, Raul Calderon, Rolande Lewis, Amanda Cary, Naomi Tolson and Don Blanchon to name a few. During that summer I found a doctor, started treatment and I was undetectable within three months of being on meds.
I remember sometime after the summer my ex-boyfriend told me to my face, without any sign of remorse, that he lied about being a virgin and cheated on me with 10 people during our three year on-off "monogamous" relationship. I knew I wasn't the only one he was lying to and that others were getting hurt. I thought I had to do something about it. Somehow get him to get tested for HIV and on treatment because I was mostly sure he was the one who infected me. But I couldn't do anything about it at the time. I would have to eventually find another way to make a difference.
I ended up going to James Madison University where I studied International Relations and was accepted into the School of Music for my music minor. I struggled academically and with my identity for three years before I found the Madison HIV AIDS Alliance (MHIVAA). I went with them to my first AIDS Walk Washington (now called Walk to End HIV) where the thousands of people made me feel like I finally truly belonged and that I could reach my dream of being an HIV advocate. So when Dr. Todd Sabato offered me a seat on MHIVAA's HIV panel "Positively Speaking: My Life with HIV" I immediately said yes. Coming out on that panel was so liberating and took a huge weight off my shoulders. Shortly after the panel I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma and had to drop out of JMU. After four months of chemotherapy I was in remission. My battle with cancer renewed my commitment to fighting HIV using my voice so I joined NOVAM's Face-to-Face program and spoke around Northern Virginia public schools. One of the last schools I spoke at (before they lost funding and closed) was my high school. I remember walking through the doors of James Madison High School as tears streamed down over the huge smile on my face. I was thinking of Pedro Zamora and wishing I could show him this moment. That all of his hard work wasn't for nothing. That he has inspired so many to continue the fight and to love themselves.
Over the next three years I struggled to keep a job and with trying to go back to school. Now I have a part time job, I joined a nonprofit with a Face-to-Face program called NovaSalud. I also started performing with DC's Different Drummers' Capital Pride Symphonic Band (french horn) and joined their board as a member at-large. I have also joined the clinical research community advisory boards of Whitman-Walker Health and the DC Center for AIDS Research (DC CFAR). I have been actively advocating for sex education reform in Virginia to have our state mandate medically accurate sex education.
The reason I tell my story in detail is to add a human face to the HIV acronym. To put the human in Human Immunodeficiency Virus as so many others have before me. Us HIV positive people are just like anyone else with hopes, dreams and goals. HIV doesn't care about where you come from, how you worship, who you love or what you look like. All it cares about is if you are sharing needles or having sex (as well as breast feeding while HIV positive, etc). HIV affects all of our communities and it is up to us to stop it.
One of the most powerful quotes from Pedro Zamora that really hit me is: "I'm a person living with AIDS and I'll be living with AIDS until I take my last breath."
Well I am a person living with HIV and I will be living with, fighting, speaking out and Acting Up against HIV until I take my last breath.
Seeing as how I am on medication I plan on fighting HIV for a very very long time.
Click to learn more about some of the organizations in this story and about HIV...
"I'm a person living with AIDS and I'll be living with AIDS until I take my last breath."