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For Jeffery Williams-Knight, life is good. But there’s one aspect of his existence he’d like for young gay African-American men not to emulate: his HIV diagnosis.

By Rose Hoban

For someone who’s HIV positive, the world has changed in the past 25 years.

The past few years have seen a transformation in treatment: There’s prevention in the form of pre-exposure prophylaxis, a once-a-day drug regimen that can greatly reduce the risk of becoming infected with human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS.

Jeffery Williams-Knight said that his HIV diagnosis led him to a more fulfilled life. Photo courtesy Jeffery Williams-Knight

Before that, in 2011, research published by UNC-Chapel Hill clinician Myron Cohen showed that people infected with HIV can reduce transmission of the virus to their partners by closely adhering to their medications.

It’s a different world than in the late 1980s, when Jeffery Williams-Knight became infected with HIV. In those days, there was no treatment and the diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.

“I knew people who’d died rapidly, and I felt it was a horrible death and horrible quality of life,” Williams-Knight said of people he knew at the time, in 1986, when he was just coming out and moving to Charlotte from a small town in South Carolina.

A few years later, the young Williams-Knight learned he had the disease when he was rejected for a life insurance policy. He was working at Duke Energy and, not knowing why he’d been rejected for the policy, he called the insurance company from his office at work.

A doctor on the other end gave him the news.

Shaken, Williams-Knight walked into a co-worker’s office; she could tell something was wrong. He gave her the news.

“She immediately broke down and cried,” he recounted recently. “I was driven home, went to my apartment and threw some pillows against the wall, and was, like, ‘Lord, why me?’ And then was, like, ‘Why anyone?’”

That second question has marked Williams-Knight’s attitude toward his diagnosis, changing his path, away from one based in corporate America to a life of service and advocacy for others with the disease.

And that advocacy recently earned Williams-Knight, now 52, the honor of being named one of the “POZ Hundred,” an annual recognition bestowed by POZ magazine, the leading national outlet for news and advocacy around HIV.

Not ‘inevitable’

Williams-Knight’s new diagnosis prompted some deep soul searching. He began to volunteer at the Metrolina AIDS Project, working with young black gay men.

“But it wasn’t enough; something was missing,” he said. “I wasn’t getting what I needed during this volunteer work.”

[pullquote_right]Call 704 432 TEST/8378 for the Mecklenburg County Health Dept. HIV Information Line[/pullquote_right]That drive to do more led Williams-Knight to return to school at UNC-Charlotte. He’s been running the Mecklenburg County Health Department’ s HIV/STD Community Testing and Outreach Program for almost a decade now. He’s also the board chair of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.
Electron microscope image of HIV virions. The virus has the ability to mutate and become resistant to medication. Image courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At the health department, his focus has been on prevention work with young black men who have sex with other men, or MSMs.

“It hits close to home,” Williams-Knight said, “not just because I’m a black MSM, but because I think about when I was infected, I was in the same age range, thinking HIV had nothing to do with me.”

But two-thirds of North Carolinians infected with HIV in 2014 were black, and two-thirds of the men infected reported having sex with other men. The highest rate of infection of any population in the state is in young black men, with most infections occurring between the ages of 20 and 34.

For young gay black men, the diagnosis rate is five times that of the population overall.

Mecklenburg County had the highest rate of new diagnoses of any North Carolina county.

“This younger generation looks at HIV now like, ‘I can take a pill and not worry about it,’” Williams-Knight said.

“The other thing I hear is that ‘most of my friends are positive, I’m sure I’ll be infected soon,’” he said. “It’s a feeling that it’s inevitable.”

The social networks where young gay men meet others are hard to break into to spread the word on prevention, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is get a presence on those sites; we’re texting, doing education, condom drop sites at the bars, but we’re struggling to make an impact,” he said. “So much is happening on the Internet, and that’s somewhere that we as a health department have not had the presence that we need.”

But when the health department does a media campaign with radio and Internet ads, the hotline in Wiliams-Knight’s office starts ringing.

“I spend a lot of time answering that line,” he said.

Living openly

As a long-term survivor, Williams-Knight is credible to the young people he meets; he can speak from experience that it’s no cakewalk to have HIV.

“After taking medication for so long, and the virus being a smart virus, mutating and becoming resistant to meds, you have to be consistent,” he said. “Because once you become resistant to a medication, you can’t take that anymore.”

An estimated 36,700 people in North Carolina are living with HIV or AIDS, according to the state Deptartment of Health and Human Services. Of this number, an estimated 4,900 are unaware that they are infected. Pie chart courtesy NC DHHS

Not to mention side effects, and expense, and worry.

The other thing Williams-Knight finds himself fighting is the stigma that continues to come attached to being gay in the black community.

“Sometimes I think the church is a barrier because they can’t get past the sexual act to get to the individual,” he said. “We still have a long way to go as African-American churches.”

Williams-Knight plans to get married in his current church, the Holy Covenant United Church of Christ, early next year. But he had to join and leave several churches before finding one that felt welcoming.

“One church I was attending here in Charlotte, the minister wrote an article in the Charlotte Observer that MSM were a disgrace,” he said.

For a long time, Williams-Knight didn’t talk much about his sexuality and his HIV status. It was enough that his own social network of family and friends, his community, knew, but he’d never been “out there.”

But his recent nomination to the POZ Hundred made Williams-Knight rethink his reticence.

“I thought, Jeffery, you can’t talk about stigma and not be more out there and living openly,” he said.

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