by Delilah De La Rosa
While watching TV one day, I came across Marvelyn telling her story of being a freshman at her local college in Tennessee and just months after her 19th birthday, being diagnosed with HIV. She contracted the virus from her then-boyfriend through just one night of unprotected sex.
How did this 23-year-old make HIV “real” to me? Perhaps, and I hate to say it, because her story was not of a prostitute or drug addict. But while her story can expose the HIV misconceptions you may have, it’s her quest to share her story and spread awareness that makes HIV a reality for all of us.
SM: How did you find out you were HIV positive?
Marvelyn Brown: I was sick in the hospital due to pneumonia. The doctor didn’t know what was going on so they suggested an HIV test. [When the results came in] he told me ‘you’re HIV positive’ and I just looked at him. It was a blank reaction. At the time, I didn’t really know what to think.
Women account for over 25% of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the U.S.
-(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
SM: When did it hit you that you were “HIV positive”?
Marvelyn: I began calling people. My sister was like “oh my god, oh my god!” She was freaking out. Another friend was eight months pregnant at the time. She hung up the phone, [then] called back and said, ‘You have HIV; I don’t want you to come around me or my child.’ My first rejection made me step back and think, ‘Marvelyn, the doctor just told you you’re HIV positive.’
SM: How did you feel toward the boyfriend that infected you?
Marvelyn: I always look back to that night and … he had let me know he didn’t have a condom. And he made sure it was my choice. So I was like, ‘well if you would have used a condom you wouldn’t have been in this situation. You had a choice.’ So I was never mad at him for infecting me. I was mad at him for not wanting to talk to me afterwards.
SM: Do you know how he got it?
Marvelyn: No. Once I told him I was HIV positive, he basically kept his distance.
SM: Did he know he had HIV at the time he infected you?
Marvelyn: I do believe he knew.
SM: It’s hard to believe you weren’t angry at him for infecting you.
Marvelyn: I look at it as ‘what if he had it and didn’t know about it’—I still have HIV. And being so open about my HIV status, I also know why people don’t tell you.
SM: What was it like when you went back to college?
Marvelyn: A lot had changed. When I was released from the hospital, I had to take [medication] at nine o’clock in the morning and nine o’clock at night. Nine o’clock in the morning meant school time for me. People would ask me, ‘do you have it?’ and I would deny it. But when I was taking the medicine, people figured it out. I became the laughing stock of the school to the point [where] I would walk to my classes by myself. There was one time when I was eating in the cafeteria and they threw my tray away after I set it on top of the trash can. It actually got so bad that I dropped out of college and never returned.
SM: How did you feel when people shunned you?
“ HIV is not an adjective.”
Marvelyn: I really tried to put myself in people’s shoes. I also tried to push everyone away. I felt like a dying child. In certain places, I was forced to eat on paper plates and paper cups and wash my clothes separately. I wanted life to go back to being the same. Same old friends, for my family to treat me the same old way. It just didn’t happen that way. But then I started realizing it was actually a good thing—[HIV] was moving a lot of negative people out of my life.
SM: Five months after you were diagnosed you began to speak publicly about your HIV status and HIV awareness in general. Why not just keep it between you and your circle?
Marvelyn: I think a part of it was rebelliousness. People telling me that no one will ever accept you, you’ll never be anything and putting up these barriers against me because I was HIV positive. I have a mission; I have a purpose in life. Either I can take it and run with it or I can keep it to myself while every day people are still getting infected and dying.
SM: You share quite a bit about your social life in your talks and blogs, particularly how open you are about your status to the men you date from the start. Why reveal your status from the get-go?
Marvelyn: If I don’t and wait until we’re about to have sex to tell him I am HIV positive, not only will I not be honest and open with him, but it’s like what if he tells me ‘no.’ Now I’ve developed feelings for the guy. I would have just messed myself up in two ways.So I like communication too [laughs].
SM: How do you feel when men don’t want to date you because you’re HIV positive?
Marvelyn: It really doesn’t hurt because there’ll be no feelings there. I don’t let myself get there. If I don’t know you, then I don ’t like you.
“I’m a very strong person, but I have my days where I break down and I don’t want to hear, ‘Marvelyn, I need you to be strong.’ I want to be able to have my ‘HIV moment.’ ”