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GlobalPost's John Donnelly and a team of reporters investigate what experts are calling a 'turning point' in the global fight to reduce HIV infection rates. Successes in southern African countries have produced valuable lessons on effective approaches to fight AIDS, lessons that need to be learned in US cities where infection rates remain persistently high — particularly among African-Americans. Meanwhile a political confrontation looms in Washington over critical funding which could threaten gains already made.
Two forty-somethings from the same area of Washington, DC reveal their status and make a life together.
WASHINGTON — They may have tip-toed around it at first, but it didn’t take very long for Donald Head and Monica Thompson to recognize they had more in common than a deep affection for one another. They were both from Washington, DC — and both living with HIV.
“I was 23 years old and 7 months pregnant with my youngest son when I was diagnosed,” said Thompson, who grew up in Fairfax Village, a series of city blocks on the Anacostia neighborhood’s border with Maryland. Her adolescence was beset by prostitution and an addiction to crack cocaine.
“I didn’t have anyone to tell me, ‘Hey, you can live with this.’”
That changed when she met Head last year at a local HIV outreach job training program where he helps instruct students, Thompson was 45 and she had been living with the disease for more than 22 years.
“I had an inkling [that she was positive],” said Head. “She was pretty sick at the time and couldn’t complete the program.”
“We like to keep it simple.”~Donald Head, Community Education Group
Head’s story was no less dramatic than Thompson’s. He grew up in Kenilworth, a tough quarter along the Anacostia River, where he grew his reputation selling drugs. It landed him in prison for multiple sentences. But after 20 years of incarceration, Head had turned his life around.
His work as an HIV outreach worker for Community Education Group in Anacostia allowed Head to use the wisdom he acquired on the streets to push ideas about health and protection..
“I love my job. It hasn’t been easy. Everyday is a struggle,” said Head. “All I know is that I can’t go back there. Behind bars.”
His encouragement and passion drew Thompson’s attention. Eventually they began spending more time together outside of the classroom, and their conversations became more intimate.
“She asked me why I take my outreach work so passionately, so personally, and that opened the door,” said Head. “I told her it was because I’m HIV positive.”
The couple, both 46 years old, are two of nearly 17,000 HIV positive people living in Washington, DC. They are considered a concordant couple, meaning they are both infected. Head and Thompson’s honest relationship is unique in DC. Unlike places like South Africa where sexuality and status are less taboo, the infected in Washington rarely disclose their status.
On a warm afternoon in May, Head arrived home after work to the new apartment he shares with Thompson in a public housing complex just two miles from the Capitol Building. They had just relocated from an area of Anacostia — 23rd and Savannah — a place Head loathed for its recurrent violence.
Thompson greeted him with a warm smile and a cold glass of sweet tea, their favorite drink these days as both are committed to sobriety.
Thompson and Head don’t go out on many fancy dates, and say they enjoy keeping it that way.
“We like to keep it simple. Sometimes we go out to the movies,” said Head, “But, you know, we try to avoid temptation at the clubs and stuff.”
Perhaps more than anything, beyond supporting one another through their personal hardships and their disease, their relationship provides a sense of normalcy, something cherished by both Head and Thompson.
“I am so blessed,” said Thompson, who is simply enjoying her recovery and her new found love. “He is a good man.”
GlobalPost's reporting on global heath is made possible in part through a partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation as part of its U.S. Global Health Policy program.