World AIDS Day: Vanessa Johnson on motherhood, activism and HIV
This is part two of a two-part series of interviews by Miami-based HIV activist Michael Emanuel Rajner, exclusively for theGrio. Watch part one here.
What does it mean to live with HIV? For Vanessa Johnson, it means gathering strength from family and friends, and to never give up on finding love …
Attorney Vanessa Johnson was diagnosed with HIV after losing her husband to an illness she says doctors insisted was anything other than AIDS.
“Because were were a heterosexual couple, it never occurred to [our doctors] that we might have HIV,” she says. “They kept telling us it was anything else but that: the measles, mononucleosis, just all kinds of things other than HIV.”
But when her husband was diagnosed with PCP pneumonia, she says: “I was told by a female intern that I needed to get tested. I found out first, told him. So it was never any secret between he and I.”
“Unfortunately, he passed away in 1994.”
Vanessa says she never hid her status from her family. “I told my family right away, because it was another secret I did not want to keep.”
Mother of an adult son, Vanessa is the co-owner of the Washington, D.C.-based Ribbon Consultant Group, which provides consulting and technical assistance services to organizations and individuals representing and serving individuals with chronic health conditions.
Prior to forming Ribbon, Vanessa worked as an advocate and community leader for people living with HIV (PLHIV) and social justice issues. She has dedicated 15 years specifically to developing and providing capacity building assistance in the area of HIV with a special emphasis on women living with HIV. She is a co-founder and board member for the Positive Women’s Network-USA, the National Black Women’s HIV/AIDS Network and the National Women and AIDS Collective. She is also a board member of the National Working Positive Coalition.
WATCH the complete interview with Vanessa Johnson:
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She says living a healthy life has meant controlling her weight — some myths in the black community suggested having more weight might protect people from HIV, given the images of gaunt AIDS victims that proliferated in the early 1980s.
In recognition of her many years of advocacy, Vanessa was recognized by the HIV community and featured as an Unsung Hero in the December 2013 Issue of POZ Magazine. She also was recognized by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009 for her work in prevention. She received the Gloria Award (Ms. Foundation) in 2007, the NYS Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Award in 2004, and the Paul G. Hearne/Association of People with Disabilities Award in 1999.