And So It Happened

by Francesco di Benedetto

And So It Happened is a photodocument-in-progress about people who are HIV-positive or on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, which prevents HIV transmission) . 

Unfortunately there was a period in my life I engaged in risky behaviors. I shared needles for IV drug use with others whose status I was unaware of, and had multiple anonymous sexual partners where no condoms were used. If you know what PNP is, then you can imagine what my world was consumed by. I see my doctor at least 2-3 times a year and get my blood work done just as often. I take Descovy, Reyataz and Norvir.

Confronted with my infection I had to face my mortality and decide how/if I wanted to live. Upon coming to treat my HIV, I also came to treat my drug/alcohol dependence and learned to live sober. Years Later I dealt with an HIV related cancer that seemed easier to face than facing my drug use. Ironically, HIV helped me fight to live with purpose. I used to be so ashamed to have condomless sex. Now that shame doesn't hold me down. I love being able to fuck fearlessly. 

 

Daniel, 32. Mexican-American, Los Angeles, CA. HIV/AIDS Medical Case Manager - Patient Retention - going into Nursing

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I was a flight attendant working for a middle eastern airline and living in a country where having HIV is a crime and PrEP is an illegal drug. I was flying internationally and having unprotected sex occasionally. To the best of my knowledge, I contracted the virus while on a layover in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The man who I had unprotected sex with was a Colombian working and living in Vietnam. As a side note--it was some of the best sex I've ever had with one of the most attractive men I've ever been with.

 

I didn't get tested because of any symptoms, but I was getting tested regularly on layovers (never in the country where I was living, because I would be arrested if the test was positive). When I tested positive while on a layover in New York, it was a complete shock! However, I thought back to a couple months prior and I had had some flu-like symptoms. A couple weeks before that was my encounter in Vietnam. So, while I can't be 100% positive that this is when I contracted it, the math adds up. I did contact the person I had sex with to let him know that I tested positive. He thanked me and said he would get tested. He was very kind and concerned for my well-being, but I didn't get any follow-up with regard to the results of his testing. I found out that I was HIV-positive while getting a usual check-up on a layover in the United States. So, I went straight to work trying to find a job back in California where I'm from. I was very fortunate in being able to go back to work for a previous employer. I packed my bags and didn't tell the airline I worked for that I was leaving. Since moving to Los Angeles, I got health insurance through my employer. I started on HIV meds (Triumeq) and my bloodwork showed that I was undetectable after the first month of being on it! An important aspect of my life that has changed is that I now have to have a conversation regarding my status with anybody I date before we have sex. While society has come a long way, I have unfortunately had people (even in Los Angeles) who did not want to continue a relationship with me because of it. It's a good way to weed out people, because I have never wanted to date somebody who holds onto stigma despite scientific evidence (even when I was negative)--but it doesn't take away the disappointment when somebody I'm interested in doesn't think I'm worth challenging his preconceived notions and educating himself on the subject.


At the same time I recognize how lucky I am! I don't have to face nearly the amount of stigma that positive men faced even just a few years ago. Not to mention the fact that I am on medication that makes me undetectable and that has minimal side effects and will keep me healthy potentially for the rest of my life--I am privileged in my access to this medication. While it is great that people are starting to understand that Undetectable=Untransmittable, we need to actively help reduce the stigma of positive people who do not have access to the medications necessary to become undetectable. And we need to actively help them receive the assistance they need. PrEP is available for a reason--so that people who are negative can take control of their own health and remain negative no matter the status of another person. PrEP and treatment as prevention have taken the fear out of same-sex encounters for so many men, including myself. I find it freeing to be able to have sex, sometimes without condoms, and not spend the days and weeks afterward feeling guilt, shame, regret, and fear. With respect to the other STIs that can be contracted... GET TESTED REGULARLY!  

 

Jered, 31, Los Angeles, works in the field of egg donation and surrogacy. 

I lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s.  For a few years, losing a friend became a way of life.  Someone didn't show up at their favorite bar for a week and we thought, "Awww, too bad."  Through it all I managed to stay negative, even after watching ex-boyfriends die.  You can imagine my surprise when the doctor called to tell me I tested positive at the age of 44!  I was so mad at myself.  I had recently had some minor surgery, so my resistance was low when I became sexually active again.  I pushed safe sex to the limit, just like I had in the past, but this time with my body healing, I had pushed it too far. I'm currently in a clinical trial where my meds are injected once a month, replacing the daily pill regimen. I am undetectable and my t-cells are at an all time high.  I was leery about first going on meds because of the side-effects I'd seen in the past (wasting, distended stomachs, prominent veins) but the doctor explained these side-effects no longer happen.   The biggest plus for me being on meds is that as long as I'm undetectable, it's near impossible for me to spread HIV to anyone else. I have become more understanding and tolerant of other people's situations - their infirmities, challenges, etc. Having PrEP seems to have given a freedom in intimacy. When I first became positive, some people treated me like a leper. Now it's no big deal.

 

Michael, age 55, I live and work in West Hollywood, CA.  I am a partner in an award-winning design firm.  We build restaurants, hotels and high-end homes all over the world. 

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I normally top but I believe I got it while flipping (topping and bottoming) with a a guy I meet up with in Kuala Lumpur prior to my return to the U.S., though he claims he is negative. After returning to LA I tested borderline poz a month later and a month after that I got tested again as part of an STI panel (a friend tested positive for chlamydia), and I received the results that I was both positive for chlamydia and HIV. I say I got a perfect HIV test score on the Western bots test because all the antibody results were reactive.

In all honesty my reaction to the results was horror and in an instant I had failed my partners, my martial arts teacher and my new partner, in that order. My world came to a complete halt, I was a total failure! 

 

I was infected in 2006 and at the time meds were not recommended till my viral load got out of hand, it was well below 5000 copies at the time. I chose to return to the gym and take even better care of myself than I had in previous years. However by 2010 things went sideways with the stress of my partner being diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and karposi sarcoma. With my viral pad over 100k and my t-cells slipping to an all-time low of 350 I chose to go on Isentress and Truvada. I chose to change from Truvada to Epsicom last year and recently my viral load went slightly above 20 copies so my doc switched me to Trimeq. Unfortunately I began to itch like crazy so I am now on Descovy (what is known as Truvada with fewer side effects) and Isentess. The first 6 and a half years were filled with shame, fear and hiding, but the last 5 and a half have been very much the opposite. I ignore shame, I am regularly facing my fears and making myself seen. Accepting that ‘I have HIV but HIV does not have me’ has changed my life profoundly. The worst has happened and I am still here, so I am now pushing to be, as Gandhi would, that change I wish to see in the world. While I still draw breath I will make this world a better place to live in than when I first drew breath or die trying! Honestly no, the PrEP results do not take into account undetectability which has been proven with the PARTNERS study to have zero cases of transmission. PrEP is a great way to get negative people to take charge of their health yet their partner being undetectable is paramount! TASP, Treatment AS Prevention, has completely changed how I look at my sexual choices.

 

Evan, 54, Los Angeles, CA

Gay Revolutionary (being the change I wish to see in the world!)

I believe I was infected by a middle-aged man with whom I had bareback sex (as the bottom). He lied to me about his HIV status, and I tested positive shortly after starting PrEP. I found out later that he was poz and not taking his meds, and that he was also a meth and alcohol addict with destructive behavior. I’m currently undetectable and taking Odefsey and Isentress. Now I understand the poz community from an insider's perspective, but I also see the stunning ignorance of HIV-negative people. Even today, with the availability of PrEP and the CDC confirming that undetectable is untransmisssable, people are still ignorant and afraid of the poz community. I believe that PrEP can bridge the gap between the poz and the neg communities, but first we must rid ourselves of the sex-negative culture we've created.

 

Xe, 24, Los Angeles, Artist

Francesco Di Benedetto is a photographer currently based in Brooklyn, NY. He was born and grew up in Italy where he earned a BA in Media Studies from the University of Rome with a thesis in Cultural and Queer Studies. The core of his research was the analysis of a counterculture artistic project that, by revisiting and distorting the mainstream culture of the LGBTQ community, gave birth to an alternative imaginary. Since relocating to New York in 2012, Francesco has devoted himself to investigating the medium of photography, attending advanced classes at the International Center of Photography and at the Pratt Institute. Photography has allowed him to satisfy both his academic interests and his need for creative expression. This multidisciplinary approach has led him to develop a distinctive style strongly focused on storytelling, documentary and portrait photography. In November 2017 Francesco began working on And so it happened, a photoessay composed of portraits and interviews of HIV-positive people and people on PrEP. Besides New York City, he has also spent time in Baltimore, Washington D.C, San Francisco, and Los Angeles with the purpose of documenting this crucial moment in the history of the fight against HIV/AIDS.