Surviving HIV for 20 years: The story of Monica Charleton

Monica Charleton  (Photo Credit: Mo Barnes for Rolling Out)
Monica Charleton  (Photo Credit: Mo Barnes for Steed Media)

Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is a devastating event in any person’s life. When it comes to an HIV diagnosis, the event becomes even more agonizing. The pending prospect of a wasting illness and death hangs like an ever-present sword waiting to drop on the afflicted. For some, it can lead to a downward spiral of depression and death. For others, it becomes a fight for life and purpose. On Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, the advocacy group SisterLove gathered women who have survived with an HIV diagnosis for 20 years or more. These women are not just victims of HIV, they are activists and educators against the disease as well as motivators.

Rolling out spoke with 10 of these women at the event. Here is the story of Monica Charleton.

Where are you from?
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Why did you become an HIV activist?
Pretty much, I have always been a problem child. I have been defiant, outspoken and noncompliant. When I found out I was infected in 1989, being an activist and speaking out against the grain just came naturally to me. I wanted to know why I was infected and … to educate myself and others on HIV. I wanted to make a difference.

How did you become infected with HIV?
I was a victim of a violent sexual assault. I was raped and left for dead in a roadside ditch. Fortunately, someone saw me.

In 1989, a diagnosis of HIV was considered a death sentence. How has this changed?
It has changed in my life and others because like myself and others have fought the good fight. We fought for medication, research and change in policy and laws.

Do you think Black youth today appreciate the risk of HIV infection?
I really do not think Black youth today appreciate the risk of HIV infection. I think part of this is that Black millennials today have not really experienced the face of death from HIV/AIDS. They do not realize the devastation that took place in order for them to have the medications and care that are available to them now.

What role do you think sexual fluidity plays in the rate of HIV infection?
It plays a big role. Sexual fluidity has always been there; its nothing new. However, people are more open to experiment and identify sexually about what’s going on in their lives.

What role do you think the drugs Truvada and PreP have had in the community when it comes to HIV risk and sexual behavior?
I believe that PreP and Truvada have played a major role in certain communities, but not all. It is not as readily available in the Black and Latino community. Some communities have better access to these drugs. I myself am a survivor of sexual abuse and it is just not available for people like me in my community.

Do you have an affirmation when it comes to HIV and your work?
Yes I do: “Each one should make it a little bit better.”

What would you like to say in closing?
My message to young, sexually active people today is, “You can live with this. You don’t have to die.”

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