Tuesday was the 32nd observance of World AIDS Day, and instead of marking progress, this is the year the fight against HIV/AIDS has run off the rails, experts say.
According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic that began to plague the world in the 1980s is worsening because of that other pandemic, the one that has turned the world, including the sports world, upside down: Covid-19.
One in three people with HIV/AIDS cannot obtain essential supplies, services, tests and treatments because of disruptions related to the coronavirus, WHO said in a report issued Tuesday.
- 1988: the first-ever day dedicated to global public health started in San Francisco and came to be known as World AIDS Day.
- Nearly 33 million people have died worldwide from the pandemic, for which there is treatment but no cure.
- Almost 76 million people all over the planet have been infected.
- 38 million people were living with HIV as of last year, close to 2 million of them children.
- 690,000 people died in 2019 from AIDS-related illnesses.
As a counterweight to those grim statistics, we have the inspiring stories of three gay athletes who are living with HIV, and they are thriving: You’ll meet a 35-year-old actor turned champion bodybuilder who is HIV+ and also has AIDS; A 26-year-old triathlete and commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, who told us he was infected by his cheating (now ex-) husband; And then there’s the man you know, Olympic icon Greg Louganis. All three have shared their stories to help fight the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
“When I was 27 years old, I was in a three and a half year relationship and I was getting sick all the time,” recalled former actor turned champion bodybuilder Raif Derrazi. This was in 2012, in Hollywood, and like many actors, Derrazi had no health insurance, even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
His boyfriend did have something that helped, however.
“His dad was a doctor in another state,” Derrazi told Outsports. “So he would just write me scripts and I would take some antibiotics that would heal like my sore throat for a couple of weeks.”
But the healing didn’t last. Derrazi decided to seek help through a local health provider for low-income people like him, Healthy Way L.A. One day, after an almost 9-hour wait, a doctor at the county hospital finally examined him.
“She was super sweet, super nice,” he said. “We were joking with each other a little bit, and she said, ‘Let’s just run a whole bunch of tests.’” One of those tests was for HIV. “I come back the next week, and I walk in the office, and she’s completely sober, doesn’t even look me in the eye. I think, ‘Oh, she must be having a bad day.’”
As it turns out, it was Derrazi whose day, whose life, was about to change.
“She inhales deeply while staring at the monitor, then turns to me, and says: ‘You have HIV,’” said Derrazi. He paused as he recollected what he was feeling at that moment in time, eight years ago.
“I just remember this visceral, like in the movies, when it suddenly becomes tunnel vision, and the camera backs away from the perspective of the person watching,” he explained.
Derrazi broke down in tears. The doctor let him know she would leave him alone in that room for ten minutes, but she asked him to do something very specific during that time:
“‘I need you to call your mom, whoever is close to you, and tell them. And then call a good friend, someone you can confide in, and tell them.’ So I did,” he said, adding that he’s always been someone who is very open and outgoing.
“I told, literally, everyone in my life,” said Derrazi. “I told everyone that I worked with, my family, my friends, anyone that would listen. Looking back, that really helped me because I got this huge hurdle out of the way. And then I had this huge group of people that were all kind of rooting for me, in a sense. I wasn’t burdened by a secret.”
“I came back a week later to their specific HIV clinic. And that’s when I found out that I had ‘full blown AIDS,’ as it was phrased back then... I thought I was going to be dead in two or three years.”
Trauma after Trauma
Derrazi has experienced a ton of trauma, on top of trauma, after trauma in his 35 years:
He told Outsports he grew up in a home with an abusive father who beat his mother and gave him nightmares as a child.
The next man she married was kind, but also an alcoholic.
In 2001, he was a sophomore at his non-denominational Christian church’s parochial high school when he came out as gay to the school’s pastoral leaders; they counseled him that he was still loved, but he was also a sinner.
He survived conversion therapy. Fighting depression in his darkest days, he said his stepfather encouraged Derrazi to quit the treatment aimed at making him straight.
“My step-dad actually was the one who said, ‘If you feel that way, why continue?’”
He also survived an attempted suicide. Fortunately, he wound up a patient in a hospital instead of in the morgue. When he returned to school, he found a new passion.
“I absolutely fell in love with acting and theater performance,” Derrazi said. “It was like a choice between hanging out with the punk kids, drinking and smoking all day, or obsessing over acting. And I fell in love with that. All the drama kids were pretty much into church and pretty Christian.”
Derrazi described church services as “very O.C., like rock bands and the whole modern thing.” His torment had not been resolved, but he thought to himself, he had found a way out. “‘Wow, this all makes so much sense, and this is going to help me get out of my depression.”
But those pastoral leaders blocked him from achieving his dream of attending a religious university, because of his orientation.
“I was essentially excommunicated from this whole community and all of my Christian friends.” So, he started attending a local community college, where he discovered forensics — aka speech and debate — and competed nationally. “That’s ultimately what helped me get into UCLA as a musical theater major,” said Derrazi.
He came out publicly in 2007, shortly after graduating UCLA, and experienced a real-life “Love, Simon” moment, when he confided his feelings to his best friend. “Not with the pretense of getting together,” he said. “He denied everything and said I was crazy and outed me to everybody.”
Now he has a boyfriend who he says forgets Derrazi has AIDS. That’s thanks to being undetectable, which the CDC explains means if someone takes HIV medicine and gets and keeps an undetectable viral load, they have effectively no risk of transmitting HIV to an HIV-negative partner through sex.
Derrazi is now 35, and living his best life. He has his own YouTube channel with more than 16K subscribers. His AIDS is being managed with medication, which is far more effective with fewer side effects than in the 2010s.
“The medicine has changed so much,” he said. “I remember the side effects that I have from Atripla, they were horrendous. The body vibrations and hallucinations, and then the toxicity in my liver that I had. My doctor thought I was an alcoholic because it was so bad.”
“Now I have a pill box and I have probably, maybe like 20 to 30 pills that I go through, every day,” he said. “And one of those pills is my HIV medicine. And I don’t even think about it because it’s just part of my regimen: a multivitamin, my Omega my natural testosterone booster, everything. It’s just all in there.”
The other ingredient in his healthy life has been working out, which has done more for him than give him a buff bod, and turned him into what award-winning blogger and author Mark S,. King of My Fabulous Disease called “an Instagay hottie with a purpose.”
Changing his mindset
Rewind to 2012 and that doctor’s office, where Derrazi learned he was HIV+, and just a week later, that he had AIDS.
“Up to that point that I had been living my life with a ‘victim mentality’ and that I was constantly using circumstances and situations that gave me an excuse for why I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to achieve, or being who I wanted to be,” Derrazi said. “So I’m like, ‘I am literally a victim of AIDS. So, if I’m going to change, if I’m going to do anything with my life, I have to change that mindset.’
“So I did a ton of inner work and part of that was my physical body. I started to go to the gym and and learn. Eventually a personal trainer picked up on my my commitment and pulled me aside one day and asked, ‘Hey, have you ever considered competing?’”
At first, he said no, but upon learning about physique bodybuilding — “They’re not about being huge,” he said, “‘And that could lead you back into modeling and acting and things like that.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you got my attention.’”
Derrazi quickly got the attention of judges when he did his first pro show in Muscle Beach, Calif., and placed third. “The first and second place guy were veterans,” he said. “They were phenomenal. But I was super stoked that I did that.”
One of the female competitors said something to him that morning that he remembers to this day. “She turned to me and she’s like, ‘You know, you’re making history, right?’” Derrazi may very well be the first out gay HIV+ pro bodybuilder.
“I didn’t even think about that. But just to remember where I came from, having never bench-pressed in my life, or squatted or dead-lifted, and now I’m getting on stage as a pro bodybuilder? That was really cool.”
If you are considering suicide or struggling in any way, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming persons can reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 any hour of any day.
Josh Hipps is 26, an out gay man, a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and a triathlete who considers the Atlanta, Ga. metro area his home. He now lives in Philadelphia.
And he’s HIV+.
“I graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2018 with a degree in economics,” Hipps told Outsports. “As a logistics readiness officer, this is my second duty assignment. I started out at Travis Air Force Base in San Francisco, and that plays into my HIV story.”
That’s where Hipps learned that he was HIV+, on an auspicious day in military history: December 7th, 2018: Pearl Harbor Day. And how he contracted it is a story that shall live in infamy.
“I was diagnosed with HIV because I was originally married, and that is what led to my divorce,” Hipps recalled. “I found out that there had been some cheating that had happened in the relationship.” Hipps and his husband split soon after.
“Before I was diagnosed, I had an assumption that something was wrong, I didn’t want to believe it,” he said. He had just gotten over being sick, and after being diagnosed with HIV he was now all alone. He reached out to several friends who Hipps said “were really, really supportive.” Then he looked to the internet.
“I found some YouTube videos, found some Instagrams, including Raif’s,” said Hipps. “That’s how Raif and I linked up. I did a lot of my own research, and I realized that living with HIV was going to be possible, as long as I took my medication.”
He decided he would wait before delivering the news to his parents, and would take his father into his confidence first. “I knew that he was going to be more accepting because he was originally the one that was more accepting in the beginning, when I came out, more so than my mom,” Hipps said. He came out to his parents in 2012, when he was 18 and headed to college, long after coming out to just a few friends in the summer between sophomore and junior years of high school. “I kept it on super low, low, low profile.”
Revealing his diagnosis
“I come from a very conservative religious family,” said Hipps. “I’m a son of a Southern Baptist pastor, and so I just knew that that wouldn’t go over so well.”
Sometime around March 2019. he told his father about his diagnosis. And as he anticipated, his dad embraced him, and kept his secret until Hipps was ready to break the news to his mother in early October. “I was very, very nervous,” he recalled. “It did not go over well.”
Days passed; mother and son didn’t speak to one another. But after some time, and many questions, Hipps explained the situation and what the diagnosis meant for his future.
Fourteen months later, Hipps said he’s not as scared to tell people about being HIV+ and it’s become one less thing he thinks about.
“I will say the only times I really do think about it are when I take my medication,” said Hipps. “But even then, it’s just another pill. I take a vitamin along with it, so it’s literally just like two pills. I take one a day in the morning with food or whatever, and I’m good to go.”
Sports and HIV
Earlier this year, Hipps started what he called “this new fitness journey in CrossFit.” His Instagram is full of triathlon triumphs, videos and snapshots of swimming and biking.
“I was a larger kid in high school and then I got on a fitness kick,” Hipps recalled. “My senior year, I lost a bunch of weight, just over 50 pounds to be exact. And I fell in love with running.”
Hipps has run in marathons, a couple of Ultras — “too, too many to count” — and half marathons as well. “Where I found my niche was swimming, which led me into the triathlon thing, and that’s kind of the sport that I utilized to springboard my HIV activism.
“I was able to apply for and be accepted onto multiple different teams,” he said. “Due to my story, I was able to apply for, and be accepted onto, the Moxie Multisport racing team out of Scottsdale, Ariz., which is a triathlon-centric team. Everyone has a story.”
After moving to the East Coast, he’s deciding to take some more time for himself, work on his mental health, to “recenter” himself, he told Outsports. “I actually stepped away from the world of triathlon indefinitely. Not to say that I won’t go back, but indefinitely as it stands right now.” He added, “I want to work on my relationship with my boyfriend.”
“Dating is very hard with HIV”
Hipps is currently dating a man he met in August 2019. “Dating is very hard with HIV because there are a lot of people within the gay community, even to this day, who just don’t understand,” he said. “It’s not that they’re rude or being blatantly mean, it’s just the fact that there’s still a stigma that revolves around HIV and that there are they’re just ignorant to the issues. And so they don’t know what they don’t know. The stigma is still widely there.”
Hipps decided to advocate for HIV+ people like himself, but there came a time when he said he had to step away from being an activist.
“I had never really, truly dealt with my own mental health,” said Hipps. “My own diagnosis kind of surrounded all the things that I went through with my underlying depression and anxiety.” On top of HIV, he already had the cheating, the divorce, what he described as “internalized homophobia and internalized HIV stigma.”
“So I took a step back. But now now I’m getting to a point where I’m a lot more comfortable again, telling people, because I believe that talking about HIV, talking about mental health, those are things that the more we talk about them, the more people can become knowledgeable.”
Waiting on a judge, and a new administration
“Being a military member, HIV is taking a toll, but not in the typical sense that you would think,” Hipps said. “I’ve had to press on... knowing that the potential for my career to be over has been hanging over my head.”
Right now, the Trump Administration is in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Virginia, defending discriminatory policies that target HIV+ people in the military. As QVoice News reported in September, five military service members are suing because they are facing discharge or were denied commissions because of their HIV status.
Their lawyers have argued that it is unconstitutional for the Pentagon to have a policy that bans people living with HIV from enlistment, deployment, or commissioning. The attorneys also asked the court to order the Defense Department to allow service members living with HIV to deploy and serve their country.
“We’re still waiting for the decision from Judge [Leonie] Brinkema.” She can make a ruling; She also could deny the request and tell the attorneys they can proceed to trial.
“At the end of the day, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the next vice president and the president-elect of the United States, have already said that they’re going to rescind the trans ban, they’re going to remove the policies which kick out HIV people,” Hipps said with hope in his voice. “I’m able to still live my life as a normal human being. I can deploy, I can do all of these things. My medication doesn’t have to be stored in any specific type of storage. So, I’m no different than the next person.”
Because of all this, Hipps said he feels our government has discriminated against him as an HIV+ member of the military.
“HIV has been this thing hanging over my head,” he said. “If I was in any other career or if the Air Force had not been discharging members under the guise that we are non deployable due to HIV, then I never would have thought about the fact that I have HIV, once I got over the initial shock and awe.
“I have continued to push on representing teams, spring boarding, HIV activism through Pride events, through triathlon races, marathons, half-marathons, swimming events, masters teams and now Crossfit. It just proves to everyone that no matter what you set your mind to, as long as you’re willing, motivated and have the end goal and desires, and you have that ultimate goal you want to reach, you can get there. HIV be damned,” he concluded.
He closed with this advice to others living with HIV:
“Be proud of who you are. Don’t let your disabilities, don’t let your downfalls, your weaknesses tie you down. Break through those walls.”
Louganis joined us in June 2019 for our Outsports Pride Summit at UCLA, regaling attendees with the stories of his Olympic triumphs, his too-close contact with a diving board and coming out as gay and as HIV+.
Louganis found out he was HIV+ six months before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The diving champion turned activist, actor and author told Openly, he thought his life was over. Little did he know he’d become the only man in the history of the modern Olympic Games to win both platform and springboard diving events at consecutive summer games.
His first thought after being diagnosed: “Is this real? Is this really happening to me?” Louganis said, adding that being HIV+ is just one part of who he is. “It’s not my identity.”
His Olympic record is extraordinary: An initial silver medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a long wait as the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, then back to back gold medals at the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and in Seoul in 1988.
Louganis also won five gold World Championship medals and six golds at the Pan American Games between 1978 and 1987.
Almost half his lifetime ago, Louganis hit his head on the springboard at preliminary trials at the 1988 games in South Korea. His blood could be seen seeping into the pool on live television.
“I heard this big hollow thud and I was like, ‘What was that?’” Louganis said. “And then I’m crashing to the water.” Despite the injury, he came back with a clutch performance to win the gold in the 3m springboard, doubling that gold in the 10-meter platform.
Coming out as gay and HIV+
Louganis came out as gay in 1994 in a video played at the Gay Games. as HIV+, facing questions about whether he was right to have kept his status under wraps in Seoul.
“The chances of transmitting (the virus through the water in the pool) were so slight,” he told Greenhalgh, adding that he contemplated that question, of his responsibilities to his fellow Olympians, after being diagnosed in 1988.
Louganis, who will turn 61 next month, did not expect to make it even to 34, given an HIV diagnosis was practically a death sentence.
“I thought I was saying goodbye to everybody,” Louganis said of his 33rd birthday party.
Right now, the best selling author and diving coach is offering meditation and motivation online, as well as working on a musical about his life and a biopic. Louganis is also working to erase the stigma that still surrounds the 38 million people like him who are living with HIV.
“I have a lot to offer,” he said. “At times I still feel like a kid inside and I think I always will. But you know what? I have some life experience that is really quite interesting that I can share.”
For World AIDS Day on Tuesday, he did just that with journalist Joan Lunden on her Facebook show, Second Opinion.
Live with Joan Lunden & Greg Louganis | Second Opinion with Joan Lunden
In honor of World AIDS Day, today we’re talking with 4x Olympic Champion, HIV/AIDS Activist and Wellness Coach, Greg Louganis. Joan Lunden will talk with Greg about his HIV diagnosis and how he processed it. HIV treatment, and how its prognosis has changed since his diagnosis, and what he does to live such a healthy and full life. #worldaidsday2020 #HIV #WorldAIDSDayPosted by Greg Louganis on Tuesday, December 1, 2020