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Living With HIV a Rollercoaster

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Abe Aboraya
The Florida Channel
Will Blair was diagnosed with HIV May 20, 2014. He says the last year has been a roller coaster.

Will Blair can describe his family in three words: southern, conservative, Baptist. 

“I’m kind of the black sheep,” he said.

Blair was 17 and living in rural Lake County when he came out as gay to the grandparents raising him.

Last year, at 32, he had to come out a second time: as HIV positive.

“It’s hard dealing with letting the people close to you know,” Blair said. “Because some people, even the ones close to you, even though they’re talking to you and you hear the words coming out their mouth, you know that behind what they’re saying is judgment.”

Blair says he knew his lifestyle had risks. He had multiple sexual partners, and he didn’t always use a condom. That’s why he got tested for HIV infection every three months. He would tell partners he was HIV negative and the date of his last test.

He was such a frequent visitor for testing at The LGBT Center of Orlando that he grew friendly with the staff. The man who tested a drop of Blair’s blood on May 20, 2014, Blair recalled, would order cheddar biscuits when Blair was a server at a Red Lobster.

The day of that testing, Blair was told he was reactive for HIV antibodies, a 99-percent sure diagnosis of infection. Blair’s tester stepped out for air, and Blair grabbed the paperwork, the specimen and bolted.

“I panicked,” Blair said.

Blair’s diagnosis came just as Florida had overtaken California as the state with the most new HIV infections – a total of 5,377 new cases. Nearly half were among men who have sex with men, the Florida Department of Health says.

That first week after his diagnosis, Blair said he was like a zombie. He wanted to pretend the diagnosis didn’t happen. He eventually went to Orlando’s Hope and Help, an HIV testing and counseling center.

There, he met Steve Addona. While Addona’s officially called a peer mentor for the newly diagnosed, he is much more. At 62, he’s a living, breathing HIV history lesson.

Mystery Surrounded HIV’s Early Days

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Abe Aboraya / Health News Florida
The Florida Channel
Steve Addona is a peer mentor for newly-diagnosed men with HIV. He contracted the virus in San Francisco in the ’80s.

In 1979, Addona moved to San Francisco. It was the summer after the assassination of gay politician Harvey Milk. The Castro district was a center for gay culture and gay rights. Addona called that time a “utopia.” But within a few years, trouble invaded paradise: a mysterious virus was killing gay men all over the city.

Addona still recalls running into an ex at the super market. The man was gaunt and pale, with the telltale purple lesions, of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a complication of AIDS.  Addona soon after that attended his funeral, and those for other men he knew.

The funerals became weekly occurrences. And then it was every few days.

“We were in the middle of a sexual revolution,” Addona said. “You knew in the back of your mind your number would come up, but you didn’t exactly know when.”

Addona knows he became infected with HIV while he was living in San Francisco, but the virus laid dormant. And Addona thought he could leave the virus behind, but it followed him to West Hollywood and, eventually, Orlando.

It was the mid-1990s when Addona began hearing about a way to live with HIV. A cocktail of drugs was keeping people with HIV alive. He sought treatment.

Decades later, Addona says the medications have worked for him, and now for Will Blair as well.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Abe Aboraya / Health News Florida
The Florida Channel
Steve Addona before he contracted HIV.

Living With HIV A Reality

Blair sees his diagnosis differently than gay men did decades ago. To him, HIV isn’t the plague. It’s closer to diabetes: chronic, potentially deadly, but manageable, he told a group at ReStart, a bimonthly meeting of HIV-positive men in Orlando.

“I was at the doctor this week, and had my results of my labs from switching from Triumeq to Stribild,” Blair said mentioning the medications he uses to treat his HIV. “And I’m undetectable. Everything’s good.”

His mentor sat nearby. “Awesome, awesome,” Addona said.

Blair said he wants to become a peer mentor like Addona. It’s a big goal for Blair, the capstone of a pivotal year with its ups and downs.

He’s now on medication. His T-cell counts are in the range of someone without HIV. His viral load is undetectable, which means his chances of passing the virus to his boyfriend of five months is nearly impossible.

Yes, Blair is dating someone. That was one thing he wondered in the week where he pretended nothing had happened: Would I ever find love?

“It was a rollercoaster of a year but I learned a lot,” Blair said.

The down times have been tough. A bout with pneumonia put him in the hospital for five days. He’s not working right now, and his car broke down. When he met a reporter at a downtown Orlando coffee shop, he said he didn’t have a place to live.

“I’m couch surfing essentially,” Blair said.

Blair says he has more bad days than good.

And he still hopes. He believes that talking about his HIV status will help others afraid of HIV to get passed fear and stigma, get tested, and in needed, get into treatment.

“And I know that I’m going to continue to live as normal and healthy a life as I did before,” he said. “If not even better.”

Abe Aboraya is a reporter for WMFEin Orlando. WMFE is a part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.