Greg Sanchez has lived more than half his live HIV-positive.
It was early 1989 when he tested positive and, of course, he thought there was something wrong with the test—perhaps confusion with the test number he had been given, since the analysis was done anonymously. Sanchez was certain nothing was wrong with him since he felt fine and didn't look sick.
When he finally realized that he was positive, Sanchez was shocked, saddened and, quite simply, at rock bottom.
'I was scared to death, living in northwest Indiana in a large Catholic family,' said Sanchez. 'It was very difficult to talk to anyone or even access any resources. I felt hopeless.
'When I learned I was positive, I went into denial, mostly because I didn't know how I was going to tell anyone. I didn't think I was going to be alive.'
Sanchez even cashed in his life insurance policy.
In 1997, Sanchez went from an HIV-positive status to an AIDS diagnosis.
Now 42, openly gay and living in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, Sanchez has had a wide-ranging, amazing life, especially over the past 10 years. That life included a high-profile stint on a locally produced reality show for FOX-TV.
'Cancer, for instance, is very important to support,' Sanchez said. 'I know people with cancer and support it, too. I support the cancer pink-ribbon campaign [ for breast cancer ] and any other types of cancers that happen to people. I'm hoping one day soon, I'll see a red ribbon [ in support of AIDS research ] on a pack of Tic Tacs like I've recently seen with the breast cancer pink ribbon. And why not red Tic Tacs, too?
'HIV/AIDS needs to be supported by more big community businesses, big corporations and our government through a bigger awareness campaign, and not just putting the emphasis on Africa, but in our own backyard, too. The local venues—like the bars—are always hit up for money, and I'm sure it can wear on them to have that expectation so often.
'HIV/AIDS still a stigma attached to it. It involves talking about death, sex, drugs, and diverse populations of people who usually are perceived in some communities as marginalized, different and/or outcasts from family, friends and others.
Sanchez now works at Better Existence with HIV ( BEHIV ) as an education outreach prevention specialist, making HIV/AIDS-related presentations to schools and elsewhere in the community.
He is involved with testing and counseling regarding HIV, among other STDs. He also works in crisis intervention. The bulk of his work is done in the Chicago Public School System.
'Back when I found out I was positive, there was only one [ treatment ] pill and there still were a lot of deaths [ among patients ] . I went to a lot of funerals,' he said. 'Hopefully we're changing that, especially since treatment has gotten a lot easier.
'So many kids today hear about AIDS and HIV, but they don't really relate with it. We're trying to change that.'
Thus, his presentations—especially at schools—are very visual, showing HIV-infected patients of all shapes, sizes, colors, religions and nationalities.
'We have to remember where we have been, where we are and where are we going and learn from those people who have passed on before us and no longer have a voice,' Sanchez said. 'We need to bridge the gap between the generations that experienced AIDS at its worst and today.
'Back when I came out about AIDS publicly it had its repercussions. But [ today's youth can be ] strong and their lives meaningful.'
Sanchez has had quite a diverse life since learning he was HIV-positive and, ultimately, afflicted with AIDS. Just consider:
—He was part of an ex-gay ministry for about three years in the 1990s.
—He was one of the first in South Bend, Ind., to speak out about AIDS and HIV, 'and, of course, that had its own repercussions,' he said, referring to his house being egged and having to endure vandalism of his property, among other things. 'It was scary, but [ what I was doing was ] gratifying.'
—In 1990, he was involved with an abusive relationship.
—Chicago's FOX-TV affiliate, WFLD, held an experiment a few years ago, mixing gays, lesbians and straights. They lived together for a week, debating numerous hot-button subjects, such as HIV, hate crimes, adoption, marriage, etc. Sanchez admits he was hesitant to participate, but ultimately was chosen from among about 800 applicants. 'And it really was a great experience in my life, though quite stressful,' he said. 'Some of us really bonded and still talk today. Not so with others.' In fact, Sanchez said a five-year reunion of the 2003 crew was discussed, but some would not participate, he predicted. 'It was a great experience, especially since I heard from so many people who were struggling with their sexuality, their spirituality and their personal lives,' he said.
For 2008 and beyond, Sanchez said, 'I have just one goal, and that's to help people, whatever way that is.'