When Gwenn Barringer was a freshman at Wittenberg University in Ohio she says she had heard about HIV - she knew it was out there and knew that it impacted people but never imagined it could touch her own life. However, after hearing a young woman with HIV speak at her sorority house, she says that her eyes were suddenly opened.
"Yes, it could affect me and my friends," she told a crowd of Buena Vista University students Sunday night during the ACES presentation "A Boy. A Girl. A Virus." Half of all new people contracting HIV are under 25 years old, she says. Barringer and her husband Shawn Decker have been traveling to colleges educating students on HIV and AIDS since 2000.
Decker contracted HIV when he was just 7 years old.
In 2006, he published a memoir entitled "My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure."
Barringer fell in love with Decker. And the girl who never thought AIDS would impact her life was marrried to an HIV-positive man. She says she and her husband are a testimony to others that there can be a romantic relationship after an HIV diagnosis.
There is life after an HIV diagnosis, Decker says. He wasn't expected to live five years after contracting the virus in childhood.
Barringer decided she wanted to do something about the startling statistics she was discovering - something to fight the stigma and encourage young people to protect themselves. She took a class on HIV and AIDS, and started speaking out to people about sexual health. After completing her undergraduate education she went on to James Madison graduate program and volunteered for an AIDS Service organization. She says she wanted to go into high schools with a speaker with HIV - that's what led her to Shawn Decker. He wasn't what she was looking for - she had envisioned a program with a victim who had contracted the virus sexually.
Decker had been infected with HIV through contaminated blood products used to treat a hemophilia condition he was born with. She says she just hung up the phone and forgot about the conversation she had with Decker. Barringer later encountered him by chance at an AIDS presentation. She watched as Decker made jokes about living with HIV. Her first impression was that his humor was pretty crude. Then she discovered who he was.
"He was living and dealing with what he was talking about," she says. She later learned that humor was a way he dealt with his condition.
"One of the ways I've been able to deal with HIV for so long has been being able to laugh," he says.
He is still laughing. During his presentation at BVU, Decker joked that his horoscope sign is the crab and his intitials just happen to be STD (as in sexually transmitted disease.) Without a little humor he says living with the virus can be pretty depressing and says he wants to empower others he speaks to about being careful, using protection to avoid contracting HIV and getting tested if needed.
Barringer says it was rare to find someone so committed to AIDS education, and they began spending time together. He explains the fear within his family, first from his hemophilia - a genetic disorder characterized by lower than normal clotting and risk for abnormal bleeding - and later by the HIV diagnosis.
Hemophilia increased the risk for contracting HIV. He wasn't aware when his parents had him tested, but recalls when his mother told his sixth grader teacher that he was HIV positive. Decker ended up being kicked out of the school. He experienced discrimination often at a young age, even some of his friends' parents acted weird if he came to their homes.
In high school he said a pamphlet was handed out to students informing them that their was a student in the high school who had HIV. It was like a spotlight was shining on him. When he began dating a girl, he his the fact that he was HIV positive. When she suspected, the relationship ground to an end.
"I didn't want to feel like an AIDS patient, I wanted to feel like a boyfriend," he said. He was eventually diagnosed with AIDS but says thanks to medicine he leads a healthy life, however says it's crucial to his survival that he continues to take his medicine regularly.
As a teenager he said he didn't talk much about his health condition with his parents or friends. He says it became a problem when his first relationship became sexual. His parents asked if she had told his girlfriend he was HIV positive and he said he hadn't. "I kept putting it off," he said. One day he came home and his father told him that his mother had gone over to the girl's house to tell her about the situation. "I just felt like my world shattered," he said. He got into a few more relationships but would end them before they got too serious.
He said he eventually knew that he had to deal with the situation and realize that it was part of who he was. He said by the time he met Gwenn he was comfortable talking about being HIV positive and was confident that he could have a romantic relationship and not transfer the HIV. The couple say they have been able to maintain a healthy relationship and Gwenn remains HIV negative by being proactive and using correct protection.
Decker said that while being HIV positive has been a challenge and there have been many hurdles to jump, he has had one huge advantage - a very supportive group of friends and family.