Op-ed: This Valentine’s Day, Everyone Deserves an Equal Chance

Olympic medalist Ji Wallace talks about the Olympics, his boyfriend, and why he's now joining The Stigma Project and HRC to empower others with HIV.

BY Ji Wallace

February 14 2014 11:05 AM ET

Ji Wallace (left) and his boyfriend Shaun Baldwin

Since the Winter Games started a little over a week ago, my husband Shaun and I have spent each night watching the athletes, cheering until we lose our voice, and getting complaints from our neighbors because we are in our living room, not Sochi, Russia.  It could be said that I live for the Games. I also live for seeing my husband look over at me and just smile because he knows how happy I am. You see, Shaun knows what the Olympics mean to me.

He senses my exhilaration of competing for my country, as I relive that feeling every time an athlete is called to the slope or crosses the finish line. He knows the sympathy I have for athletes competing in fear because they’re gay in a country that criminalizes the mere support of our lives. He shares my joy for the champions who step onto the podium as the bronze, silver, or gold is placed around their necks.

Shaun knows all this because he loves me. While Valentine’s Day may bring to mind sappy cards and chocolate hearts, it’s these moments that I’m reflecting on this first year of our marriage.

But too many people living with HIV, as I am, are missing out on moments like these simply because of the stigma that still exists against us.

Shaun doesn’t have HIV, but he understands HIV. He knows that while I never wanted a positive diagnosis, I am living proof of all that’s possible. I run marathons. I’m a coach for Cirque Du Soleil. I’m a world champion trampolinist and an Olympic silver medalist. I’m a champion.

In short, Shaun knows that HIV is treatable and the drugs that exist today can mean healthy, happy and fulfilling lives. 

But not everybody is like Shaun. Stigma and discrimination persist and many living with HIV find that they are victims to discrimination on a daily basis. This is not surprising, considering the misconceptions the public still believes about HIV: one in three Americans aged 18 to 29 believe HIV can be transmitted through sharing a drinking glass, touching a toilet seat, or swimming in a pool with someone who is HIV-positive. Among the general public, the percentage of people who have one of these misconceptions has not changed since 1987 — just one year prior to Greg Louganis winning his fourth gold medal.

Even for those who are more educated about HIV, there’s still so much everyone can learn. Today, HIV is treatable and with the current class of antiretroviral therapies, people living with HIV can live as long as their HIV negative counterparts, as long as they are in care, adhere to their treatment, and continue to have a suppressed viral load.

Shaun knows all this. And he says if he didn’t understand HIV, he’d have missed the greatest love of his life. I would have, too.

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