BET.com explores the lives of four people who are living with HIV and fighting on the frontlines to educate and empower their communities. While many areas around the country have seen declines in the spread of HIV, the infection rates in Atlanta, continues to climb. Meet four community organizers and health activists who are working on the ground to change that narrative starting with themselves.
Antoinette Jones began her work with HIV advocacy in her early 20s, inspired by the isolation she felt growing up with the virus. She was born with HIV, contracting the virus through vertical transmission from her birth mother, and was adopted as a baby. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2014, “In the absence of intervention, the rate of vertical transmission of HIV can range between 15-45%. With the inclusion of antiretroviral drugs during pregnancy and the choice of delivery route this amounts to less than 2%.” Jones credits her adoptive mother, a medical worker, with ensuring that she felt valued and was educated about living with HIV as a young girl.
Today, the 25-year-old works with SisterLove, a women-centered organization that focuses on HIV, sexual and reproductive justice, educating and counseling others on the intersectionality of these three issues.
On this World AIDS Day, our fourth advocate in BET.com’s 2020 series, Antoinette Jones discusses how she teaches those who are newly diagnosed to best manage and positively channel feelings of isolation, depression and fear.
I was hired at SisterLove as an HIV peer specialist and advocate to facilitate support groups for women living with HIV. When I first started, and I had my interview, it was one of the first times that I've had to speak out loud and say that I was living with HIV. The job that they made for me was not the job that I originally applied for. They felt like they needed to create a position specifically for me because they didn't have any people under 25 working at SisterLove. And they had never really heard many conversations about young people who were born with HIV.
I also have never met anybody else living with HIV until I started working at SisterLove. For the majority of my life, I felt very isolated, very alone. I didn’t grow up with my biological mother, who had HIV. I grew up with my adopted mother and my adopted family. No one else in the household was living with HIV. My mom told me about my HIV status when I was nine, but I like to say I found out my diagnosis at three different times in my life. They diagnose you when you’re born, and they test you, and then you come back reactive or positive. Then when my mom told me that was the second time. When I was 18, I suddenly started to realize, 'Oh crap, I’ve got HIV.' When I turned 18, my mom was like, 'Look, you’re 18 now. You’re going to have to start doing a lot of these things on your own. I’m not always going to be here to take you to your doctor’s appointments.'
I was very scared. I would cry. I had to go to a women’s clinic. It was different because they weren’t talking to me as they had at the children’s clinic. They weren’t patient with me. They weren’t walking me through everything explaining what this number means and what that number means. They expected me to know that information already because they were used to seeing women who had contracted the virus at an older age; very rarely women who were born positive. There were times when I gave up. There were times when I fell out of care because I didn’t want to go back to the clinic. I didn’t want to do it on my own. I didn't know that you could fire your provider if you don't feel a connection. That’s not just with HIV, that’s with reproductive justice, that’s with racial justice, that’s for any care that anybody is receiving.
Currently, I have a provider who actually works with me and takes the time to understand me and my history of living with HIV. She took that into account when trying to find the proper meds that I need. She connected me with a support group of people on Facebook who were born with HIV.
At work, I wear many, many hats, but testing and counseling are my main focus. I facilitate support groups and I provide resources and link people to care services in the community. Additionally, I’m an advocate and speak publicly about HIV. I do have to talk with legislators and our representatives about some of the laws that affect people living with HIV, whether they’re related to reproductive justice or racial justice.
Rather than advocating for proper sexual education in school or decriminalization of HIV laws and reproductive health access separately, at SisterLove, we get into the practice of supporting all these issues as one. It’s all oppression. Much of this stigma has to do with race or homophobia, transphobia and all of these -isms and -phobias.
Since I was born positive, people often assume when I share my story that my child will be born positive. That’s not true at all. I want folks to understand that you can be with someone who has HIV and not contract the virus. HIV is not a death sentence, so you don't have to be afraid of loving that person or being with that person or feel that they will leave this earth anytime soon.
Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based entertainment and culture reporter who has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, GQ, NPR Music and Atlanta magazine.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.