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November 21, 2008

Living with HIV in
small-town Ohio

Michael McKinnis is a gay, HIV positive man living in rural Ohio. He was born and raised in Marion, about 40 miles north of Columbus, with a population of about 35,000, and still lives there.

I am one of 21 males with HIV in Marion. There are only two females with the virus in the city, while there are 23 males diagnosed with AIDS in the county and four females. The average age of people living with the virus in Marion County is between 35 and 44.

At 37 years of age, I have seen a lot in life, good and bad. I am single, funny, sarcastic and witty, but I am getting too old to keep quiet and lay low. I have my story to tell.

When diagnosed in August 2006, I was lost, ashamed, and afraid. Thank God my family, friends and co workers were there for me. We learned together how HIV/AIDS would affect me, and in turn affect them.

I also found help at AIDS Resource Center Ohio and the Center Street Clinic, where Jennifer and Lori have been my guardian angels. They were there from the get-go and let me know I was going to be all right.

Lori Robinson is the ARC Ohio’s program manager and specialized case manager in the Mansfield/Marion area. Jennifer Wehry is a case manager for the Center Street Clinic in Marion.

It is difficult to be openly gay, let alone HIV-positive in small towns. There is no gay community to turn to. Marion, Ohio has no known active LGBT group activities other than ARC Ohio’s “Poz Peers” support community. There is only one “gay supported” lounge in Marion, but the location and history of this establishment give worry, as there have been many violent acts committed there.

I have friends that have been attacked, forced into the street or shelter to live, and even committed suicide from the fear of the hatred and stigma that comes with being gay or HIV positive.

I was fired in July of this year from a major telephone company. I had to have oral surgery and turned to a top manager to request time off. I thought I could be open and honest. I told her my HIV status and that my teeth were infecting my body. They fired me a week later after promising I had nothing to worry about. I was mortified, thinking how little we’ve progressed from two decades ago. I was made to feel like a leper, a liability.

There is no proof of what was discussed with that manager and I now wish I had never disclosed anything. I’ve found that when I disclose my gay and HIV status, many friends will turn away out of fear and ignorance. The rural communities are small and everyone knows everyone’s business. Once your status is disclosed, it is almost impossible to find employment, friends--and sometimes doctors.

In the Marion area, according to the Ohio Department of Health statistics for 2006, 53% of males contracted HIV from male-to-male sexual contact, 29% from another source or an unknown one, 5% from injection drug use, 4% from heterosexual contact, and another 8% from one of the latter two but they don’t know which one.

Now it is mid-November and I am still without work, but I am hopeful things will turn around soon. I’m very lucky all in all. My mom and best friend, God, and yes, even Madonna, keep me inspired.

Many of my friends are not so lucky and have been rejected by close family members, including their parents.

I have to keep going because I am loved and want to do so much more in this life. I think I could be a voice of hope, even out here in BFE.


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