I’m Cleverson Flemming. I am 19 years old and I live in the borough of Penha, in the outskirts of Rio. I discovered I was HIV-positive a year ago, during a competition for a government job.
I believe I was infected at 14, but didn’t find out about it until I was 18. The majority of what I learned about HIV was after I found out I was positive, and I only got proper information by looking it up on the Internet. At school, the information given was horrible, with images of deformed genitals, causing you to fear the condition without informing you about it.
Obviously I don’t like having the virus. But I am alive, I go running, I go to the movies, to the theatre. I don’t get attached to the idea of a ‘disease’ because I don’t see myself as a sick person. The main problem is the prejudice, but I go on living my life.
The message that I have for people who are just discovering that they are positive, or already know they are positive, is to live your lives normally, like anybody else. The important thing is to keep yourself well psychologically, to try to be happy. HIV is just a virus, and if you control it you can live a normal life, like I do.
I realised I was gay when I was nine years old. But from realising it until actually understanding it took some time. At 12 I had a friend who was openly gay and I wanted to find out more about it through him, to get to know the lifestyle. He took me to parties, introduced me to friends. I used fake IDs to go to nightclubs. And so I had my first sexual experiences when I was 13, 14 years old. I had never used a condom—in my mind STDs and HIV did not exist. Then I met an older guy, he was about 25 years old, and it was a very intense sexual relationship.
As I got older, I became more aware of my sexuality, of homosexuality. Until then it was all a fantasy, and my notion of homosexuality was somewhat mistaken. I thought it was about glamour, colours, lights, nightlife, and parties. I was in denial of my reality, of my life, my personal conflicts.
I became more aware and started using condoms. My life followed its natural course until I joined the Army when I was 18. I wanted to join the Navy so I took preliminary exams to see what it would be like. When I passed, I had a perfect moment—a night with a beautiful moon. I had never worked before, so I knew I was going to earn a good salary, that I would be able to buy a house. I remember I was celebrating and there were fireworks somewhere. It was like a film.
When I did the health checks in the Army hospital, the syphilis test came back negative, but the HIV results took a long time to be delivered. It was such a headache. It was getting closer to the exams and I was told they would send the results of the HIV test during the exams, which were administered somewhere else.
And it was there, in the middle of the exam, that I was told by a lieutenant that I could not proceed with it because I was HIV-positive. My life was over. I started to cry, but no one knew why. I considered shooting myself, but I knew this would not make any difference.
My situation at HQ is still very complicated, because they cannot dismiss me just like that. And yet they don’t know what do to about my situation. The Brazilian Army is similar to the USA. Nowadays, they cannot stop you from joining because you’re gay.
At first, my mother did not believe it. I told her I would not go to Escola de Sargentos das Armas (Army College), and she started to argue with me, as if I did not want to go, as if I were bored of it. Eventually, the penny dropped. We started to even joke about it. Rather, I did. But only my close family knows about it—my mother, stepfather and brothers. No one else in the family knows.
Three days after I found out about my status, I met Guilherme, my partner who I live with. I met him on the Internet, in a chat room of people living with HIV/AIDS. He invited me to visit Pela Vida. I got to know more about HIV, and things changed. The fear I had—from the stigma associated with the disease—that I was going to get thinner, wane, and die, suddenly dissipated.
Later on, through an invitation to discuss proposals regarding activities for young people with HIV, I visited patients in the waiting rooms and talked to them and realized they felt the same way I did back then, when I first found out about the virus. This has given me a lot of self-confidence, and perspective.
I only gained the perspective of an HIV-positive person after I had the virus. It was like I went through a portal, observing the reality of people who do not have the perspective I have now. I started digging deeper into the issue of being HIV-positive and I learned a lot about how to live with HIV/AIDS. Today I live a normal life like any other person.
About my marriage with Guilherme, it’s a great life of a normal couple like any other. We started living together about six months ago, so we have some disagreements, a few scuffles sometimes. But it’s a good life. I am very happy here. It’s an achievement for us and we live very well. Guilherme is a sweetheart. He is my love who takes care of me, and that’s it.
I still suffer at times due to prejudice, but I have overcome a lot since I first got the results. I worry that someone who knows me but does not know about me having HIV will see these pictures, but the project is interesting and that is why I am taking part in it.
At work, only my superiors know that I am HIV-positive. If I tell my workmates their attitude towards me might change. It is important to talk about AIDS, but people have to know themselves better, to seek and search, to question the reality of their own country, their culture, their own body. Information matters, but also to break the stigma associated with the treatment. It should be like any other disease, like tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer.
My message is similar to something a friend from ABIA said: Do not look at people as positive or negative, but as interrogative. You cannot tell someone’s status from his or her face, so it’s important to value the individual. Only you know what’s inside. I have my problems and you have yours that only you know, but we must find empathy to comprehend one another.