Colombia-born Maria Mejia was 18 and living in Kentucky when her blood test results came back with a shocking revelation. The doctor bluntly gave her the news: Maria, you are HIV-positive.
“I believe I got infected at the age of 16 from my first boyfriend who I later found out was an IV drug user,” Mejia said. “I was in shock, especially back then, because it was a death sentence. I thought to myself, ‘I am going home to die.’”
The “back then” Mejia refers to is 1991, the same year Magic Johnson retired from the NBA promptly after announcing that he had HIV. This announcement sparked rumors that Johnson was bisexual or gay because many people still believed that HIV was a problem only affecting the gay community. It is these stereotypes that made Mejia break her silence on living with HIV for more than 20 years.
Mejia said she rejected the initial high dosage prescriptions of AZT for the first 10 years of her treatment, favoring natural medicine from her mother’s health food store in Colombia, saying, “[The doctors] told me to sign a paper where it said that [AZT] could damage my internal organs so I decided not to take it … and I am glad because back then they were giving very high dosages.”
But when her immune system began to fail after 10 years without prescription medication, Majia said she eventually turned to antiretrovirals and has taken those for the last decade. Mejia felt alone when she was first given her diagnosis, which is easily understood when you hear the relatively low number of women who have HIV.
According to the most recent data from the County of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services’ HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Unit, there have been 14,162 reported local cases of HIV since the onset of the epidemic in 1981. Of those, 8%, or 1,110 cases, are women.
Mejia, who now lives in Miami with her wife Lisa, works with several HIV support groups and advocacy organizations in order to spread hope, compassion and knowledge of women living with HIV to the masses.
While Mejia probably contracted HIV from her first boyfriend, there is a misconception that women who have only had sex with women are virtually immune to the disease. When asked to comment on the misconception that HIV is solely a gay man’s disease, she said, “When I found out I was HIV-positive, I never thought it could happen to me. It was a gay man’s disease, [or for] IV drug users or prostitutes. I was just a teenager. The key here is education. I have seen from a baby to an 80-year-old woman with the virus. People are very surprised to find out about me, because I don’t fit in the stereotype. That is why it is so important to me to show my face to take stigma away! I believe that by showing a different face of HIV/AIDS I can help save lives and educate.”
This could not be closer to the truth. The facts on women with HIV can be muddled or murky because lesbians or bisexual women could be engaging in other high-risk behaviors, such as IV drug use or unprotected sex with a man. The Centers for Disease Control reported in 2008 that a quarter of all HIV/AIDS cases are women. Locally, the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency only collects data on the likely mode of transmission rather than on sexual orientation. However, the HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of HHSA releases a Consumer Needs Assessment survey of San Diegans living with HIV every two years. Of the 150 surveys returned by women in 2010, about 8 (or 5%) listed themselves as lesbian. HHSA Epidemiologist Lorri Freitas said this is due to the fact that one woman was not included because the survey looked at women only of childbearing age.
According to a report from the Women’s Institute at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, HIV was the leading cause of death in African-American women ages 25 to 34 and the fourth highest for Hispanic women ages 35 to 44 in 2004.
Mejia currently resides in that last bracket, but she no longer fears her disease. “I want to give those infected and affected by this condition hope. I want to save lives! And if that takes coming out of the HIV closet I am ready! I believe that helping others is where you find true happiness and health.”
Mejia has received help herself from her wife of four years, Lisa Laing. Laing, who does not have HIV, fully supports her wife’s decision to be an advocate for HIV awareness.
“I really respect and admire how brave she is by coming out and educating people, it is so needed,” Laing said. “Since I learned that Maria has HIV, it has impacted me to really appreciate life, and the only thing I want to do is take care of her and be there for her in every possible way. It is not an easy life but if I can help to make it better … that’s what makes me happy.”
For many women, Laing’s story will likely be a wake-up call. The risk for contracting HIV is still real, even if you have never had sex with a man.
David Salyer from AIDS Project Los Angeles wrote for TheBody.com that many lesbians mistakenly believe they are not at risk of the disease because the CDC did not include female-to-female transmission in its AIDS reports until the last few years. While it is considered a rare occurrence, there have been cases of female-to-female transmission reported. These cases are thought to have been caused by sharing sex toys or engaging in oral-vaginal sex when one person has a sore or cut on her mouth.
Mejia believes the government should focus HIV awareness campaigns around knowledge and love rather than using fear-based tactics, saying she wishes to see “prevention with our stories … because [campaigns of fear] cause more stigma, and where there is fear people look the other way.”
Listen to Maria Mejia, and the many other women with HIV for whom she speaks: Do yourself, your partner, and the community a service. Get tested, know your status and help create a more compassionate world free of ignorance.