I’m twenty-three years old, and I’m bringing swag to HIV awareness. I’m swagtastic.

I was born HIV-positive. My biological mother passed away of complications from AIDS. I really felt abandoned. I went through a period where I hated my birth mother, because I felt like, “You just going to leave me here with HIV?” But I loved her at the same time. It was very confusing.

A lot of my poetry has to do with my mom and her absence in my life. One of my first poems was about my father being a drug dealer and my biological mother being his customer and sexual partner—that whole enmeshed relationship that they had. At first, in my poems, I spoke about my mother having AIDS, but I didn’t share my stories of living with HIV. In high school, I stayed quiet because I didn’t want people to be like, “Well how do you know all this stuff about HIV?” It would blow my cover. Then, I was inspired to write “Dandelions,” my first poem exposing my status. “The sickness she denied lies in my blood with a lesser value.” Every time I get to that point in the poem, where I disclose, I get this rush of nerves, like, “Oh my God, I’m going to tell them I’m HIV- positive.” It just feels good to tell my story.

Lately it’s been difficult, especially with my mom who raised me. My dad cheated to have me and I think she chose to let me live with her because she wanted my dad around. My mom doesn’t want me to be exposed and she doesn’t necessarily support me being an advocate for HIV. But this is what I feel I have to do.

I love my camera. I named it Scotty. Scotty has to come everywhere with me because she’s my friend. I hope my photographs inspire people who are HIV-positive to tell their own stories. I hope that my photos let someone know that they aren’t alone. I really hope my pictures normalize HIV because I think that if people see the relationships between my HIV-negative best friends and me—who don’t look at me as being any different from them—they’ll realize that we’re all human, and that it’s OK to love someone who is HIV-positive.

And so they said

By Mary (Washington D.C., 2012)

And so they said
That we were mere fragments of a broken society
Blotches of imperfection tainting America’s dream
God’s punishment compromising our immunity

So we snapshot fear, frame our insecurities
Zoom in close so that the world can see that we are alive

Through Positive Eyes the view is beautiful and rare
Taking you where statistics can’t go
Deep inside our homes
Where stigma haunts mirrors
And ARVs strut with ego

Who knew that a photo could tell you stories
Of mothers who live for their children’s smile
Women full of strength and pride
Men who refuse to die
And youth who choose to be seen as well as heard

We say it loud
Spread the word

We are not fragments of a broken society
We are not blotches of imperfection tainting America’s dream
And it is not God’s punishment compromising our immunity
It’s HIV

We overcome fear through snapshots
Quiet our insecurities within each frame
Zoom in close so that the world can see that
We are very much alive and
Living normal lives
Telling our story Through Positive Eyes