At age 20 Tommy Chesbro, a Cherokee Lumbee from Oklahoma, admitted to himself that his great loves would be men.
Sometime after that realization, a single night of unprotected sex left him infected with one of the deadliest viruses the world has ever known.
In 1985, the same year in which movie star Rock Hudson died from AIDS, Chesbro was diagnosed with human immuno deficiency virus. He was 24.
Only four years after HIV, which in its advanced form is AIDS, was identified by world medical authorities, the best guess for Chesbro’s future was death.
“There was no medication,” Chesbro said. “I was just preparing to die.”
Scientists now speculate that HIV has been around since the 1950s. But it took five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia in otherwise healthy gay men within seven months between 1980 and 1981 to capture the medical establishment’s attention.
But you know that, if you’ve even so much as turned on the television in the last two months.
What you may not know, as I didn’t until I talked by phone with Chesbro and others recently, is that HIV/AIDS is cutting deep into Native communities.
Let me give you the numbers as they were explained to me following the landmark “Embracing Our Traditions, Values and Teachings: Native Peoples of North America HIV/AIDS Conference” held in early May in Alaska.
According to 2004 data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 7.9 out of every 100,000 American Indians are infected with HIV/AIDS. That’s a higher incidence than among whites, of whom six out of every 100,000 are infected.
These numbers become more serious when you consider that the Native population, at 3.5 million, is radically smaller than the white population at 217 million.
Every one of the more than half a million lives lost in the United States alone to AIDS was precious. We, American Indians, of all people should know that. Our oral histories are still mourning the untold millions we lost in epidemics since Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
We, who are still beset with earlier deaths from disease and car accidents than nearly every other race in America, cannot bear one more threat. Let alone a virus like this, which can almost always be prevented for the simple use of a condom. Or for the simple choice to not share a needle.
I’m not condoning dangerous behavior, nor am I trying to make anyone feel guilty. I am writing this to make us think about the power of love within a couple, a family or a tribal community to heal lives.
“We know HIV is associated globally with disenfranchised populations, where that’s based on race, sexuality or poverty,” said Chesbro, who is vice president for education of Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma. “Those are all things connected that affect our Native populations.”
Chesbro, like millions of other survivors around the globe, battles with the anti-viral pills he takes daily. Private insurance from his job covers the bills. His office is located conveniently down the hall from a restroom.
The drugs give Chesbro chronic diarrhea. They also give him high cholesterol that puts him, at age 45, in a high-risk category for heart disease. They also give him his life.
Like many who grew up around Stillwater, Okla., Chesbro loves hunting and fishing with his dad, a longtime wrestling coach who is assistant athletic director of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
Yet it took four years after his diagnosis for Chesbro to tell his parents and brothers that he was HIV positive, or for that matter, gay.
“It was difficult for them to deal with at the same time,” Chesbro recalled. “Your parents have dreams for you. They have to go through the process of realizing that their dreams for you aren’t their reality.”
Yet Chesbro’s mother and brothers had an easier time accepting the two facts than his father.
“For the next 10 years, my father and I could not have a discussion about my infection and personal life,” he said. “At that point we could have separated, but we both love hunting and fishing.”
They spent many days together, hunting with their bird dogs and carefully avoiding the elephant in their midst. On his own, Chesbro was avoiding other relationships.
“I wonder why someone would want to deal with that my disease,” he said. “I was bad about pushing people away. I didn’t think anyone was going to be able to deal with someone who was infected.
“Then a friend told me I didn’t have the right to decide who can love me.”
About one year later, in 1995, Chesbro met his love, who he has been with ever since. But it would take years for all of the Chesbro’s family to welcome his partner for holiday dinners.
“One of my aunts found out and got very upset,” Chesbro said. “She had a talk with my father. They ended up coming over and spending a day with Chad and me in my home. It was the first time my dad had come over and had dinner with me and my partner.”
The next day Chesbro called to check his dad’s mood.
“My father doesn’t like to show emotions, but he said, ‘I finally pulled my head out of my ass and that’s enough said.’”
For Tommy Chesbro, telling his story has become part of his healing. At conferences like the one held in Alaska in May, he and others teach workshops where American Indians practice negotiating safe sex. Many, who are recovering from addictions, may never have spoken up for themselves before, he said.
It’s all a part of loving oneself and one’s partner, said Chesbro, whose partner is not infected with HIV.
Turns out, love is more virulent than HIV/AIDS.
Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she has worked for the last 11 years for The Oregonian. In May she joined the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative of Buffalo State College as a senior fellow. She writes about Native American health issues in this biweekly column. She is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the 2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.