Charlie Sheen may have stolen the spotlight this World AIDS Day but The Pride and Poz Magazine wanted you to meet some local champions. Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, almost 78 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 39 million people have died of HIV. Meet these powerful survivors and read their story.
53, North Hollywood, CA
Gilbert became aware of AIDS in 1985 when it led to the death of his local church leader. In 1990—soon after testing positive for HIV himself—he began volunteering in the community. In Chicago, Gilbert facilitated support groups for newly diagnosed gay men with the Test Positive Aware Network. In Los Angeles, he co-founded the Positive 20s support group and volunteered at AIDS Project Los Angeles and Being Alive. Gilbert has served in a professional capacity on prison release programs and in all manner of case management and educational positions. In 1998, he was selected as a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Switzerland. Today he’s a case manager at Valley Community Healthcare in North Hollywood.
58, West Hollywood, CA
“Housing as health care” is Jim’s specialty. The Yale graduate has spoken to Congress about the issue, and he’s involved with the National AIDS Housing Coalition. All this despite a harrowing experience with an early drug trial that resulted in spinal damage—he lost 7 inches in height because of destroyed disks, leaving less room for his lungs, bowel and stomach. Jim has undergone 37 spine surgeries in the past five years alone. As such, he’s also a staunch advocate for disabled rights. And yet one of his biggest battles, he says, was getting sober 14 years ago. Medical records support his seroconversion back in 1977, before AIDS was even known. Today he’s working on a memoir that we can’t wait to read.
52, Santa Monica, CA
After testing positive for HIV in 1991, Joel embarked on a North American speaking tour to tell his story and to warn teens about the risks of mixing sex and alcohol. He kept at it for nearly 14 years, educating more than a million students at high schools, colleges and faith-based groups about the daily realities of HIV/AIDS. He has held staff positions at several acclaimed nongovernmental organizations, including the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Feeding America, and Malaria No More. Joel is the managing director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, where he helps allocate millions of dollars in grants to some of the most at-risk populations in the global HIV epidemic.
29, Los Angeles, CA
Grissel is the co-director of We’re Still Here, a 2015 documentary that shares the stories of kids like her who were born with HIV during the epidemic’s earliest days. The Mexico City native was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, and by age 12, she had already started her activism career—perhaps she takes after her mother, Silvia Valerio, another 2015 POZ 100 honoree! Through work with groups like Positive Women’s Network–USA and the Presidential Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS, Grissel has helped carve out spaces for women, people of color and Latin-American youth living with HIV. Today she is a social worker at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where she helps coordinate HIV prevention projects for young gay and bisexual men.
61, Los Angeles, CA
In 1981, Sherri was on top of the world, leading her band, Get Wet, to a Billboard hit and looking forward to major success. But bad luck and bad timing ended her career, and Sherri started using drugs full-time. She got herself in rehab, and after nine months she felt ready to start a new life. Then she tested positive for HIV. Sherri worked hard to keep herself healthy—made trickier with her hepatitis C coinfection—until antiretrovirals finally got her HIV undetectable (she hopes to be cured of hep C soon). She appeared in POZ in 1997 for her one-woman show Life Is a Beach and graced the cover in May 2008. Today, 31 years clean and sober, Sherri continues to put her entertainment skills to good use as an activist and educator—especially for women.
47, Los Angeles, CA
Silvia was living in Mexico City when she was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, but she traces the infection to a blood transfusion in 1986. For nearly two decades, she has dedicated both her time and considerable skills to HIV advocacy and prevention, notably for the Latino community and for women. (We bet she was a big influence on fellow 2015 POZ 100 honoree Grissel Granados, who is Silvia’s daughter!) Currently in Los Angeles, she works as a peer navigator at nonprofit AIDS group Bienestar, where she focuses on linking HIV-positive transgender women to care. When not at work, she’s busy coordinating community events, working on the Los Angeles Women’s HIV/AIDS Task Force, or being the public face of HIV campaigns—proving that HIV advocacy is more than a full-time job.
53, Palm Springs, CA
Jeff is a long-term survivor who also works on long-term survivor issues with the Reunion Project. And he’s dedicated to educating and empowering a new generation of activists. In Palm Springs, he produces a monthly HIV treatment education program called The Positive Life Series, with an emphasis on aging long-term survivors. As a member of the national community advisory board of the Martin Delany Collaboratory of AIDS Researchers for Eradication (CARE), a network of U.S. and European researchers, Jeff champions scientific literacy. And he is part of an effort to work with the Black AIDS Institute and AVAC, a global prevention group, to bring young advocates to the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, where they learn the science of HIV and how to share their knowledge.
53, Escondido, CA
Rhonda tested positive for HIV three weeks after giving birth to her daughter. She was homeless at the time, but in healing herself, she discovered a gift for peer counseling that has defined her life. Rhonda has helped countless people with HIV in the San Diego area, lately through North County Health Services. She visits local high schools to talk about HIV risk, and she speaks at churches and recovery centers. She also provides a taxi service for medical appointments, is a meal delivery service for the homebound and loves to plan potluck dinners. When it comes to helping out, Rhonda is always ready!
57, San Diego, CA
Wanda was a social worker living in Indiana when she was diagnosed in 1996. Though frightened, she began educating herself on her new status, which led her to The Aliveness Project of Northwest Indiana. In 1997, the AIDS service organization offered her a job as a community spokesperson and later a care coordinator. In 2012, she retired to California, where she went right back to activism. Today she’s a health educator with the San Ysidro Health Center’s Women Partners Program, promoting HIV prevention services among women who are intimate partners of incarcerated or recently released men. Wanda has devoted herself to empowering and educating other women the way The Aliveness Project helped her so many years ago.
56, San Francisco, CA
After dealing with depression, nightmares and suicidal thinking—common among many long-term survivors—Tez finally recognized the symptoms as post-traumatic stress and gave the condition a name: AIDS Survivor Syndrome (ASS). An activist and public speaker, he founded Let’s Kick ASS in 2012. Working to combat the symptoms and isolation of the syndrome, the group now has chapters in San Francisco, Palm Springs, Portland and Austin. The group also launched National HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day, marked each June 5.
54, San Francisco, CA
Vince understands how difficult and isolating life can be for long-term HIV/AIDS survivors. As a gay Chamorro (Pacific Islander) activist originally from Guam, Vince began his activism in the HIV community in New York City in 1985. He currently chairs the HIV and Aging Workgroup for the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services, and he’s the program manager of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, based at its new medical center, Strut, in the Castro. Vince builds community by helping folks come out of isolation and depression and regain a sense of purpose and human connection.
Felicia Flames Elizondo
69, San Francisco, CA
In her own words, Felicia is a “screaming queen, a pioneer, a legend, an icon, a diva, a 28-year survivor of HIV and a Vietnam veteran.” She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1974 and has survived physical attacks, rape and imprisonment because of hate and discrimination. When she was diagnosed with HIV, Felicia was volunteering for ARIS Project to help people with AIDS in San Jose, California. She started doing drag to further her activism, and has been raising funds and awareness for 28 years now. The San Francisco resident has made about 80 panels for the AIDS Memorial Quilt and remains involved with the trans community. This year, Felicia was honored as a Lifetime Achievement Grand Marshal in San Francisco’s Pride Parade.
47, Sacramento, CA
As a clinical case manager at Sunburst Projects, Jolene empowers children, youth and families living with and affected by HIV. Sunburst Projects provides mental health services, family-centered case management and HIV-positive support groups, among other services, to enhance the lives of the HIV community. Jolene overcame addiction and incarceration to return to school and thrive, completing her associate’s degree in chemical dependency, bachelor’s degree in social work and master’s degree in social work in just eight years. Jolene chooses this work because she understands exactly how important it is for the HIV community.
Jesus Guillen Solis
55, San Francisco, CA
Need some support? Consider joining Jesus’s new HIV Long Term Survivors Facebook group, which he started this summer to help HIV-positive people overcome isolation and the unique challenges that come with growing old with the virus. Already, the online group has more than 700 members who talk about everything from stigma to side effects in a closed forum. Jesus also co-founded gay Latino group AGUILAS in the ’90s. Today he is a veteran of San Francisco’s HIV planning commission and sits on the board of Catherine’s House, an HIV/AIDS retreat and organic farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. He’s also a cancer survivor, a photographer, and a singer and composer of HIV-related music.
Arturo Jackson III
55, Sacramento, CA
After seroconverting in the early ’80s, before HIV even had a proper name, Arturo worked 13 years at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. He witnessed thousands die, while he remained relatively healthy. Arturo committed himself to documenting the realities of the epidemic. At the height of “gay panic” he was the HIV/AIDS editor for San Francisco’s Sentinel newspaper. In 2002, Arturo earned his master’s in social work. Since then, he has helped seniors faced with elder financial abuse, and he managed Open Arms, a homeless shelter for people with HIV. He has also been a social worker at Inland AIDS Project. In 2008, he co-founded Strength in Numbers Sacramento. Lately, he has hosted a monthly potluck for HIV-positive people at the local LGBT center.
59, San Francisco, CA
Since testing positive in 1986, Nancer has been using her art as a tool to fight stigma and to educate and empower. A grantee of the California Arts Council for many years, she has taught printmaking at SOMARTS, been an art teacher in San Francisco and Oakland, and worked as an artist-in-residence at the University of San Francisco. She also works at Hospitality House, a drop-in art center for homeless and disenfranchised people. As she ages, Nancer says, her art grows more socially and politically oriented. Lately she has been focusing on older women, whom she feels are sorely underrepresented in HIV/AIDS conversations; for example, she approaches this subject by silkscreening pictures of older women onto the soles of men’s shoes.
57, San Diego, CA
Wanda was a social worker living in Indiana when she was diagnosed in 1996. Though frightened, she began educating herself on her new status, which led her to The Aliveness Project of Northwest Indiana. In 1997, the AIDS service organization offered her a job as a community spokesperson and later acare coordinator. In 2012, she retired to California, where she went right back to activism. Today she’s a health educator with the San Ysidro Health Center’s Women Partners Program, promoting HIV prevention services among women who are intimate partners of incarcerated or recently released men. Wanda has devoted herself to empowering and educating other women the way The Aliveness Project helped her so many years ago.
68, Forestville, CA
Short of finding a cure, one of the biggest wins in the fight against AIDS would be the development of a vaccine. Bill has advocated for a vaccine since 1990, through ACT UP New York and ACT UP Golden Gate, and through work with several clinical trial networks of the National Institutes of Health, where he helped establish community advisory boards and served as a community representative on management groups of the trial networks. In 1995, he co-founded AVAC (which provides global advocacy for HIV prevention), and today he’s the director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. What’s more, Bill is now leading efforts to promote coordination and collaboration among HIV vaccine researchers, developers and funders.
52, Sacramento, Ca
She’s the education, testing and outreach coordinator at First Step Wellness Center, but Acintia’s HIV advocacy extends throughout California (the state legislature recognized her for community involvement) and all the way to Ethiopia (where she helped set up the CDC’s HIV prevention program Sister to Sister). Back home, she’s an ally with Positive Women’s Network–USA, she co-founded the Woman 2 Woman support group for African-American women, she’s the previous chair of the Faith-Based Action Coalition, and she’s a ministry leader at Chosen Few Ministry. Oh, and one other thing: She’s the very proud mother of four college graduates.
These are but a few of the powerful people living with HIV and AIDS who continue to make powerful contributions in the fight.