Op-ed: This Valentine’s Day, Everyone Deserves an Equal Chance
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.
Wallace (left) and Baldwin share a love of athletics and an understanding of HIV, two things that help them stay together
Shaun and I were guests at the London Pride House during the Summer Olympics in 2012. As I was watching an interview with Greg Louganis, I thought of the stigma that’s still out there. I thought about how lucky I was to have Shaun — and how lucky he was to have me. And I knew I needed to speak out.
So I wrote a letter and heard from people around the world. The support I received — and still receive today — was incredible. But I also hear heartbreaking stories of those who are HIV-positive and feel isolated from the world because of their diagnosis and the stigma that so often accompanies it.
Today, I’m proud to be working with The Stigma Project and Human Rights Campaign to help raise awareness around the stigma that impacts people living with HIV. I truly believe it’s the number one barrier to ending the epidemic and I am proud to use my voice to empower those living with or affected by HIV. With seemingly insurmountable odds, if we have support, if we have love, we can thrive in the face of stigma and show the world our true potential, no matter our HIV status.
I encourage you to share our special Valentine underscoring that, positive or negative, everyone deserves an equal chance at love.
HIV isn’t a life sentence of loneliness and isolation. It isn’t a character judgment. It isn’t something that will prevent you from achieving everything you ever wanted. And Shaun and I are living, loving proof.
Ji Wallace is an openly gay, HIV-positive Australian gymnast and Olympic trampoline champion. He won the silver medal in trampoline at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Watch this video below of Wallace's coming out on ABC, with clips from him at the 2000 Olympics, where he won the silver medal.