As long term survivors we have a duty to educate.

Published 05, Sep, 2017
Author // Félix Garmendía

From New York, Félix Garmendía: "The years have filled my heart and mind with stories to tell the new generation of HIV positive people. Stories filled with HOPE, not despair..."

As long term survivors we have a duty to educate.

Today I was thinking about how the face of HIV has changed. I was telling my husband a story that I had long forgotten.

In 1989, after 3 years of absolute celibacy, I found myself suddenly in a relationship with an HIV negative man. The terror of HIV loomed everywhere but I decided that, as scary as being tested was, I needed to do it. I tested HIV-positive on December 19, 1989 and had been in my new relationship for less than 3 months.

Testing positive in 1989 was pretty much a “death sentence” and I told my new “significant other” (that’s what society allowed us to call our partners back then) that if he wanted to run I would understand. The common knowledge at the time meant that I could expect to live between 6 months and 18 months. My partner did NOT run away from me like many others did when faced with the same dire news of the era.

I will always remember a guy that I used to know from my years studying in the University of Puerto Rico, where I finished my undergraduate degree in theater.

Edwin was gorgeous. Like many of us, Edwin moved to New York, escaping the conservative Puerto Rico of the 80s. I ran into him in a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Edwin was happy to be in New York City and he was in a relationship and looking better than ever.

I would never see Edwin again but a year or so after that encounter, a common friend told me had tested HIV positive and his boyfriend threw him out into the street. Edwin died homeless and alone. This is just one example of the many, many horror stories of the 80s in NYC.

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Going back to my story. I was lucky, luckier than Edwin and many other young men that were abandoned by “loved ones”. Together, my partner Paul and I survived the initial shock of HIV. He was scared but his love and compassion were stronger than his fears.

Shortly after, we moved together into an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One day Paul come home with one of his close friends. He was friendly but seemed to be somewhat reserved which I attributed to maybe shyness. Paul had told him about me testing HIV positive but that subject didn’t come up during his visit.

A few days later he called and invited me to go with him to an LGBT dance at Columbia University. Paul couldn’t make it so we headed to the dance together. We were having a wonderful time dancing, chatting, bonding when he asked me to step outside for a “break”. When we got outside, he told me he had something important he had to talk to me about.

We sat down together on a bench outside and he said, “Felix, you are infected. Paul is not infected. Don’t you think it’s best for you not to jeopardize his health and future?”

He went on and on, telling me I was being selfish and strongly urged me to break up with Paul and find someone who was also HIV positive. I stared at him stunned in disbelief. I couldn’t believe my ears. His words penetrated my heart and soul like a knife. I got up from the bench and without saying a word, walked away like I was in a trance. When I got home, I blurted out to Paul exactly what had transpired at the dance with his friend. Paul never spoke to him again.

*******

This whole story is about remembering the horrors of the 80s and how long-term survivors like me, survived these kinds of experiences. Fear was the king of the land and HIV-positive people were the unhappy subjects of a kingdom of fear.

I look back into these memories and realize I am one of the lucky ones. Thirty years after, I am still around, happily married to my husband Denis for five years after twenty years together. The years have filled my heart and mind with stories to tell the new generation of HIV positive people. Stories filled with HOPE, not despair, strength, not surrender. I know firsthand the many tragic stories of shattered dreams, isolation, sickness and death, but having survived these sagas, I’m determined to do everything in my power to render these stories as ancient history not to be repeated.

It is another time and things have changed significantly for the better. HIV is not a death sentence anymore but ignorance is still around. I was asked a few years ago by a friend if sharing a joint was dangerous. He was scared that the saliva in the joint was going to give him HIV. I laughed and explained to him that was not the case. He was very happy and we enjoyed our joint talking about the horrors of the 80s.

It was a beautiful moment, a moment where the old story teller told the young man about the power of fear and the power of knowledge about HIV. He was thankful and I felt very good about myself. As long-term survivors, we must share these experiences with the new generations. The stories of the casualties of a war where fear and ignorance were the most powerful obstacles to survive the dark ages of HIV/AIDS.

We have a responsibility to remember those who didn’t survive the AIDS holocaust by educating the new generations. It is the only way to avoid reliving the dark ages of one of the most horrible pandemics that humankind has seen.

Spread the word, tell your stories. It might be your opportunity to spread the light so needed to dissipate the darkness of ignorance in the 21st century.

About the Author

Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía

"I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s. Living in Puerto Rico, and growing up there was a bumpy process. I was very aware of my homosexual identity at a very early age, so fighting the stigma was a very intense journey in my native island.

I love art. The Ponce Art Museum was my shelter since I was in high school. As my first job ever, I guided bilingual tours for locals and tourists from all over the world.

In high school, I was introduced to music and theater, after that, I chose to pursue a B.A. in theater at the U.P.R. ( University of Puerto Rico ). Rio Piedras campus.

In college, I discovered many things about myself. My sexual identity became established, my religious beliefs changed dramatically and my awareness of my role in society became the first and biggest challenge of my life. I became a proud gay man, an atheist and an activist. The political climate in Puerto Rico was very far away from recognizing any kind of gay rights so I knew that I needed a community that I could call my own, and be myself. After several years in Puerto Rico, in my twenties, I moved to N.Y.C. to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Education and Art Criticism at New York University. I decided to stay in Manhattan. Here I found myself. I discovered my passions, causes to fight for, and the strong community that I always dreamed of. I became a passionate man with strong convictions.

After graduation I became a N.Y.C. school teacher. I taught art in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Upper Manhattan for 15 years.

Sometime in my twenties, I was exposed to HIV. I tested HIV-positive and after a serious depression, came out strong and victorious. I became an AIDS activist. My passions in life became the gears that fed energy into my existence.

Very early in my N.Y.C. years, I became a staunch liberal. All my causes were related. I was trying to survive in a world where not everybody cared if I did or not. Politics made clear who cared for me as a human being.

That’s why I’m very vocal about my postings. Not because I want to convince anybody, but I do it for those who, like me, once needed some direction in life. I want to share the "real" me with those friends with similar beliefs or at least respect for my beliefs.

Today, I still live in Manhattan. I’m legally married to my husband Denis Beale and I’m disabled. My life is not easy, I have several health related conditions that are a real challenge these days. This bring me to another one of my causes. From personal experience, I believe in the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). 

I consider myself a loving, compassionate and spiritual person. I have no patience for bigotry, especially the kind of sanctimonious bigotry that wraps itself in prayer and fake compassion.

This is a synopsis of who I am. It would be really helpful to start introducing myself with my favorite warning. Warning: I’m human, far from perfect, passionate about life, the pursue of difficult answers, and the conviction that we are all equal."

Felix has been featured in The Huffington Post’s Queer Voices; see the piece here

You can follow Felix on Facebook here or here, on twitter @PozHeart and also on Instagram, here.