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Portraits of HIV

Six Americans on what it’s like to live with HIV.

Written and produced by Adam Wenger
Photography by Don Harris, Laura Kudritzki, Krista Lee, Artie Morales

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The first case of HIV was reported in 1981. Today, more than 1 million Americans live with the virus. There is no cure.

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Brenden Shucart, 33

Diagnosed: 2005

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In 2010, gay and bisexual men accounted for 63 percent of estimated new HIV infections in the United States, according to the CDC.

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"When I found out I was HIV+ it was just before my 25th birthday and it was devastating. I thought I was a monster and that no one would ever love me again. I embarked on about a 3-month drug binge, and a kind of half-assed suicide attempt.

"I let myself be helped. There were people even from the beginning who reached out to me and I kept slapping their hands away. It wasn't until I decided I didn't want to die, didn't have to die, that I let them help me."

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Steven Phillips, 53

Diagnosed: 1984

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While diagnosis was once considered a life sentence, the average 20-year-old who receives early treatment can now expect to live into their 70s.

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“Nobody warns you about the friends you’ll lose, how people will treat you, or how it feels, even today, when people back away from you once they know your status.

“They also don’t talk about chemical side effects of being on the medication, the depression that ensues due to chemical imbalances or the crazy inexplicable emotions of the grieving process.”

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Josh Robbins, 31

Diagnosed: 2012

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Approximately 50,000 Americans become newly infected with HIV every year. The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 people living with HIV are unaware they have the virus.

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“It was more than a mistake. It was more than a poor decision. It was not intentional. I messed up. But, it changed me. It is still changing me. I still make myself find the positive in situations.

“I confront the stigma, if I can. Sometimes that means looking my best friend in the face and hugging him after correcting him. It means that I explain to my mom why putting HIV-positive individuals in jail for non-disclosure really is a terrible thing for those of us working to prevent new infections. Sometimes it means I need to walk, protest, make a video, blog, or make a phone call.”

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Thomas Davis, 22

Diagnosed: 2014

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Blacks represent approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010, according to the CDC.

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"I deal with stigma by speaking out about my experiences and being open to any questions people have about HIV even if it is no one else's business. If a question or statement comes out offensive, I breathe first and try to hear where they are coming from before I respond. Stigma will only die off when we start listening and understanding exactly what it is that people are scared of."

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Justin Terry-Smith, 35

Diagnosed: 2006

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More than 16,000 people live with HIV in Washington D.C., according to the D.C. Department of Health. That equates to roughly 2.5 percent of the city’s population — an infection rate that exceeds the World Health Organization’s definition of a "severe epidemic."

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"If you have multiple or just one sexual partner I do think that they should disclose their HIV status. People that you are involved with do have the right know. If they don’t want you because of your HIV status, than to hell with them. I met my husband soon after I was diagnosed and we have been together for eight years and married for five. In this day and age anyone no matter what their HIV status should be able to find love."

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Cecilia Chung, 49

Diagnosed: 1993

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Transgender women are especially at risk for HIV. The CDC reports that among those newly diagnosed, 51 percent of transgender women had documentation in their medical records of substance use, commercial sex work, homelessness, incarceration, and/or sexual abuse.

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"Without hope, there is very little to look forward to and to fight for. If you can help trans women to turn hope into something tangible, I guarantee they'll have a much higher chance to protect themselves from harm, and to stay connected to the health care services that respect them and see them as who they are: human beings."

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