HIV positive: Many still struggling with ‘forgotten’ virus


By Ashley Goodman |

Photos by Ashley Goodman

Last October, Antonio Forte celebrated his birthday at Universal in Orlando. After getting off a roller coaster, he began throwing up blood. He went to his hotel room to shower and sleep it off. About an hour later, he woke up with the shakes and a high fever.

“I really thought I was dying,” he said.

His friends rushed him to the emergency room that night where he underwent numerous tests. The following morning, he woke up in a room cut off from the public where he found out he had pneumonia and bronchitis.

But Forte, 33, who performs in drag at The Metro in Jacksonville, sensed there was something more to it. Every doctor who surrounded him wore masks and eye guards.

“I demanded to know what was going on,” Forte said.

Four doctors came in and told him he was HIV positive. The virus was new and attacking his body.

Many people turn blind eyes to the epidemic although it is still continuing to infect people like Forte.

Disappearing Act

During the past decade, AIDS has been put on the back burner and other diseases such as cancer have moved up to the forefront. Another reason is discussing AIDS can cause discomfort.

“People can be uncomfortable discussing AIDS because that can involve discussing topics people that can be uncomfortable with such as sex and working with populations of people that are marginalized such as transgenders and drug users,” said Donna Fuchs, the executive director of the Northeast Florida AIDS Network.

“I think AIDS does not receive the same level of attention as it did in the past. It is now often thought of as a chronic disease that can be managed long term with antiretroviral medications,” Fuchs said.

HIV was mentioned for the first time in a medical publication on June 5, 1981. In the 1980s, acquiring HIV was almost a guaranteed death sentence. But in 1996, a “triple cocktail” of three kinds of drugs was created to help the body fight off the virus and strengthen the immune system.

The treatment medications remain expensive and harsh on the body. Even with treatments, patients experience fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches and insomnia.

“Without the same level of attention as it was receiving in the 1980s and 1990s, less people are exposed to the impact of AIDS on the community and we still have a growing infection rate,” Fuchs said.

Staggering Numbers

According to CDC statistics from 2008, Jacksonville possesses the fifth-highest number of AIDS diagnoses among U.S. cities.

There are many reasons why AIDS is more prominent in the South than other cities in the United States. Lack of education, increases in testing, higher rates of poverty, lower graduation rates and high employment all play a role.

There is also still a mentality that people diagnosed with AIDS asked for it whereas people with cancer didn’t.

There were 6,855 AIDS cases and 2,660 HIV cases in Jacksonville, according to the Area 4 AIDS Surveillance Report in April 2013.

AIDS and HIV cases continue to rise in Duval County. In 2012, there were 215 people diagnosed with AIDS compared 207 in 2010. For HIV, there were 298 cases in 2010 and 378 cases in 2012.

A New Hope

In general though, people living with HIV in the United States have reached a steady decline.

There are about 50,000 cases of HIV each year compared to 130,000 in the 1980s. According to the CDC, the estimated number of AIDS diagnoses since 2010 was 1,155,792. The top three diseases that beat out HIV today are lower respiratory infections, cerebrovascular disease (stroke) and heart disease.

But as Forte’s diagnosis showed, the problem hasn’t gone away.

After he found out about it, he secluded himself from everyone. “I wanted to crawl into a dark corner and cry. I didn’t want to live. I was nothing but a statistic now.”

Before being diagnosed, Forte felt invincible, he never thought he would contract HIV because he always wore protection. He tried reaching the man whom he thinks he contracted it from but he screened his calls.

Forte is taking two medications, Isentress and Truvada, he is almost undetectable now. Although the medications assist him in living an “almost-normal” life, he is still going through the motions of the disease. Some days, he wakes up so sick, he is unable to get out of bed. This has caused him to call off of work at The Metro in Jacksonville Fla., where he has been working on and off for 10 years.

After graduating high school in Jacksonville, Forte started doing drag in 2000.

He always knew he was homosexual.

“Oh gosh, I knew when I was a kid I didn’t like girls because I always looked at boys the way you were supposed to look at girls.”

Growing up in the 90s, being gay was generally not well received. Surprisingly, Forte faced little discrimination against his sexual orientation in high school.

“I got picked on a little bit but I was well liked by everyone,” Forte said. “My friends really looked out for me.”

Forte has a strong support system that keeps him together. His family has stood by his side every step of the way after he was diagnosed.

“That alone gives me the will to fight to stay and enjoy my life with these people that are more than just friends or family, they give me life. They give me the will to get up everyday and live my life.”

Forte warns others, hoping that even one person will listen and protect themselves. He continues educates others who are HIV positive that this is not the end.

“Even though you feel helpless and worthless and numb, remember with the technology and medications you can live a healthy life. It’s the beginning of a new life, a life that is going to be wonderful and full of everything you will need.”

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