From the minute I walked through the gate to Mark S. King's Baltimore front yard and he stopped me from the porch with "Wait, let me turn on the water feature," I had a feeling we'd get along just fine. (It is a lovely water feature indeed.)
Mark is the kind of friendly that makes sense when he says that he's originally from Louisiana, the kind that welcomed a stranger into his home after a few e-mails and a phone call, handed me a glass of sweet tea, and talked openly about his life -- a story that happens to feature 30 years living with the HIV virus, recovery from drug addiction, a "stupidly happy" marriage, and advocacy work in AIDS agencies and as a writer, videographer, and blogger.
It wasn't PC to take the HIV test when he did, Mark said. The consequences were too great. There were no effective drugs. Who would want to find out they had the virus and then sit around and wait to die?
Sign him up.
Diagnosed on March 15, 1985--the Ides of March, and a week after the test became publicly available, he points out -- he was shell-shocked, thinking he'd just wait around until he "found a spot, or coughed, and then the countdown begins." Instead, "It turns out I didn't die."
Three years later he began what he envisioned as a "karmic kind of deal" of a job at L.A. Shanti, the first AIDS agency in California, a career move that led to decades in leadership at AIDS support organizations.
By 1996, advances in drug treatments began to make normal lifespans possible for people with HIV, and people diagnosed prior to that year became known as longterm survivors, Mark among them.
Today, he writes, makes videos, and supports HIV awareness, education, and advocacy. Mark has detailed his life as a person with HIV and an activist at My Fabulous Disease. He began writing his story down when an editor encouraged him to use it as a way to draw people in, and it went from there. "My blog didn't really take off until I bridged the gap to people and their stories who were not like me," he says. "I wanted to express myself," whether that was meeting a need to pour out his guts or to write something funny.
"My message is joy," he says. "I want to address living joyfully with HIV, no matter who you are."
"We have to tell the truth about how things are for people with HIV, and not paint a picture that is fear-based," he says. "People know bullshit when they hear it. The fact is that it's a manageable condition through meds and regular doctor visits."
Mark's current regimen is six pills a day, and he is expected to live a normal life span or even longer, due to the consistent and quality health care he receives.
"I'm so grateful to be walking and talking, I'm not going to quibble over taking the number of pills I take a day," he says. He also notes that he is a "white gay man who has resources," saying that HIV is now the greatest threat to the marginalized -- the poor, people of color, and women, whom he describes as "those least likely to defend themselves."
He warns that the need for education, diagnosis, and treatment is still great in the U.S. "The threat of HIV to young gay black men in the U.S. rivals that of sub-Saharan Africa," he says, not because they are making stupid decisions or engaging in any riskier behaviors, but the pool in which they swim is inherently more risky.
Despite the fact that approximately 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV at the CDC's last count, before I met Mark last week I don't think I have ever knowingly had a conversation with a person with HIV, and definitely not a conversation with anyone about living with the virus, or dying from AIDS. I claim to have deep concerns about and personal involvement with issues that disproportionately affect the LGBT population and people living with addiction, so this makes little sense and is difficult for me to admit. But it's important to say it out loud, because I'm probably not alone in my relative ignorance.
It's also why I mostly wanted to know what a person can do to be part of the solution for people living with HIV.
"Go get an HIV test, right now," Mark says, noting that of the more than a million people living with HIV in the U.S., at least a couple of hundred thousand do not know it, and they drive the epidemic. Tell friends to get tested, he says. Post about HIV and the need for continued testing. Speak up. Refer to his post on My Fabulous Disease listing five reasons to take the HIV test right now, like I just did.
"The virus is undetectable in my bloodstream," he says. "I am not infectious. If we are going to stop the threat of HIV, we need to find out who is positive, and those who are positive can get into treatment."
More physicians need to offer the test routinely, too, Mark says, to take away the stigma.
"It makes (physicians) queasy, because they might have to have conversations about sex..." he says. "We need to normalize what it means to get the HIV test. It's not because you're a slut or an addict, but because it's the right thing to do."
It is so rare that I meet someone and feel immediately at home, and even rarer to learn some things, and walk away with a better understanding of an international health crisis, but that's what happened at Mark's house, on just another day for him with HIV. I asked him if he was selfie-averse and he said hell no, so I walked away with one of those too.
Please check out his blog and videos, including his report from the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS, below.
"I'm a curious guy. I want to celebrate the people who are doing the work," he says.
"I'm Charles Kuralt with HIV."
Please learn more about
A Day with HIV is presented by
, the most widely-read HIV treatment journal in the U.S. published by a non-profit AIDS service organization, Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), in Chicago. This year, in an effort to extend its A Day with HIV
virtual photo sharing initiative, POSITIVELY AWARE
is working in partnership with Let’s Stop HIV Together, an HIV awareness and anti-stigma effort of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
This post is made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.
(All images of Mark at home last week in Baltimore are taken by me. He graciously provided the others.)