By Bianca Meza, December 2019 issue.
That is what Isadore Boni says is his outlook on life after living with a HIV diagnosis for 17 years and the challenges that come with the virus.
Boni, 52, was born and raised on the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in social work and then attended the University of Southern California for a master’s degree.
While in Los Angeles, Boni was recruited by his tribe and became a social worker. However, in 1999 when Boni was 29, a trip back to Phoenix changed his life forever.
“I never got into the gay life,” Boni said. “In 1999 I stepped into my very first gay bar. I started getting comfortable with my sexuality, and I made friends in the gay community. About two years later, in 2001, I started getting symptoms.”
Boni said he began getting symptoms for the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, such as night sweats, weight loss and a cold that would not go away.
“Looking back at my behavior I knew what it was,” Boni said. “But I didn’t get tested. I didn’t get tested because at the time the climate of HIV was different than it is now. Back then people were still terrified and so I ignored it.”
A year later, after the symptoms got worse and Boni felt weaker day by day, he decided to get tested.
Boni’s results came back positive. In that moment he knew he could no longer live on the San Carlos reservation because word was going to get out, and he knew his family was going to live with the stigma of having a family member with HIV.
Therefore, Boni decided to move back to Phoenix and start from scratch. With only a backpack and a change of clothes, in 2002 Boni was homeless with HIV and also diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
In 2004 he was ready to tell his story. He was interviewed by Mary Kim Titla, a Native American advocate journalist, and Boni’s cousin. The story aired on World AIDS Day and Boni then became the Native face of AIDS in Phoenix. He began speaking at schools and traveled throughout the United States to speak to Native Americans about preventing HIV/AIDS. He also was interviewed by local newspapers such as The Arizona Republic.
“I got a lot of media,” Boni said. “People were following me around with their cameras. I really felt like Princess Diana there for a while.”
However, it was difficult for some members of Boni’s tribe to accept the news.
“I got rejected, put down, and relatives disowned me,” Boni said. “I was accused of turning my reservation into an AIDS reservation. And I expected it. I didn’t expect people to just embrace me right away because I’m gay and I have HIV, but I felt free.”
With that freedom Boni felt more powerful and decided to use his platform to educate people. He was able to bring HIV education and testing to his tribe. He also brought 25 agencies from Phoenix to provide education and information on National Native American AIDS Awareness Day in 2010. That same year, Boni also advocated for a tribal HIV privacy law which was passed by his tribal council in 2012 and now exists in the tribal health codes.
Fawn Tahbo, who is the program manager for the Phoenix Indian Center, said people like Boni are what Native communities need.
“Thanks to people like Boni the movements are getting bigger,” Tahbo said. “These conversations need to happen. It’s the only way for our Native brothers and sisters to progress.”
R.J. Shannon, HIV activist and friend of Boni, admires the work he has done for the community.
“Boni has made a lot of wonderful change for a lot of people,” R.J. said. “One of the things he has done, that’s hard for people to understand, is to look at the world through not just his lens, but through the lens of others who have the same experience.”
In 2010 Boni ran his first half-marathon wearing a white shirt with the words “AIDS Survivor” written on it. In that same year his Hepatitis C went into undetectable status, which Boni credits to his running. Since then, he has completed eight half-marathons and three full marathons running for HIV/AIDS awareness.
“2019 is my 17th year with HIV,” Boni said. “My outlook today is ‘bring it.’ No matter how hard it is, the HIV, the homophobia, just fight it. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”