For Masonia Traylor, contracting HIV wasn’t supposed to happen. She had been, after all, the most responsible one of her high school friends—the one who kept aspirin and spare pants and candy in her locker in case one of her girls got her period, and who always had a listening ear for those who faced abuse at home and a shoulder to cry on for those who had boyfriend problems. It was Masonia, too, who encouraged her friends to take their health seriously, particularly their sexual health, persuading them to follow in her footsteps and get tested annually for HIV to make sure that they hadn’t contracted the disease or passed it along to their partners. So nurturing and responsible was she that Masonia’s friends called her “grandma.”
But being a grandma to everyone else couldn’t protect Masonia from a potential killer. Indeed, during a routine annual gynecological visit, she found out the devastating news: she was HIV positive.
She was 23 years old.
Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant with her second child.
“After all of that preaching, I ended up being the one who ended up positive,” Masonia told MyBrownBaby.com in an exclusive interview as part of the annual awareness campaign, A Day With HIV. “Getting tested wasn’t enough prevention. Nor was monogamy. I ended up putting my life in someone else’s hands by not knowing my partner’s status.
“I was numb. I was in disbelief that I was positive,” she added. “I kept saying, ‘I’m not sick, I don’t have symptoms. I wanted a third and fifth opinion, a twelfth and a twentieth, too. But it was real. And every day, it was like I was going to a funeral. I kept asking myself, what did I do so bad to deserve this. Is it because I didn’t forgive people for hurting me? Was I supposed to be a virgin until I got married? Maybe I’m being punished for having sex at an early age.”
Of course, Masonia’s reasoning was illogical. She got the virus that causes AIDS because she unwittingly had unprotected sex with someone who was infected—simple as that. And she would have to walk through fire and fight her way through a web of racism, poverty, ineffectual policy and emotional distress to fight the disease not only for herself, but her then-unborn daughter.
First, she had to overcome the desire to abort her baby. “I didn’t want her to go through the mental, emotional and physical distress I was going through,” she said. Then, when she did decide to go through with the pregnancy, she had to fight the devastating effects that came with overloading her system with AZT, a powerful anti-viral drug that made her so sick, she almost stopped taking it—a move that, surely, could have led to her daughter contracting the disease.
In the meantime, she was forced to figure out how to afford rent, utilities, food for both her and her young son, and healthcare costs for both her management of her HIV (the AZT medication alone cost almost $2,000 per month) and her high-risk pregnancy on a part-time pharmacist’s salary of about $900 per month. She was, quite literally, drowning. Sick as she was, she tried to secure extra hours at work, applied for and got food stamps and did hair on the side to make ends meet. Because she was part-time, she got no maternity leave, and when she was finally able to recover enough to make it back to her job, they’d given it to someone else.
“I lost so much of my joy and happiness and being in fear of possibly dying or getting sick or being afraid,” she said. “I didn’t have any love to give anyone. I was sleep deprived after having the baby. I went through post partum, but no one knew. I hated myself. I was disappointed in myself for making the decisions I’d made. I felt like there was nothing else that could happen to me other than cancer, and even that I thought wasn’t as bad as this. I could beat cancer. But this…”
It was this experience that helped her understand the barriers women in general and women of color in particular face when they’re pregnant and HIV positive. “Why would you be concerned about getting care for your HIV when your basic needs aren’t being met?” she asked. “If you can’t get help at the food stamp office because you miss a phone call for an interview, and it takes weeks for them to get back to you, and you have to go search for free baskets of food and you don’t want to tell people you’re struggling because of your status and you’re afraid because you’re not educated about the disease,” you’re shutting down. You break down emotionally, mentally, spiritually and then the physical thing comes, and that’s how your child is born HIV positive. The barriers are real, and HIV is just the icing on the cake.”
It took Masonia two years to get to the point where she could forgive—and learn to love—herself through the disease. “Eventually, I learned that HIV is something anyone can get,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong. And then I started looking at it from a standpoint of an epidemic— one that affects a population of unheard voices, particularly heterosexual women.”
Now, Masonia is a passionate advocate on behalf of Black women and the communities in which they live—a “grandma” very much in the vein of the fierce advocate she was in high school, supporting and preaching to her friends. On A Day With HIV, she’ll be working on national policy she hopes will help knock down the barriers surrounding perinatal transmission—much like those she faced while she was pregnant. She’s also quite outspoken about holding Black men, in particular, accountable for being what she calls “the protectors” of our community. If they’re having unprotected sex and refusing to find out their status, she says, they’re harming Black women, their children—indeed, all of us.
“Whether they’re gay, straight or bisexual, they are the protectors of us women. In order for us to be childbearing women and give birth, we have to be in contact with Black men. They have to help us protect the next generation.”
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Thank God for Masonia Traylor—for her health, for her babies, for her experience, for her advocacy on behalf of us. We at MyBrownBaby salute her and all of the fearless advocates who bravely share their experiences to not only heal themselves, but to save our lives.
To read more about A Day with HIV or to participate in the campaign, follow along and post a picture in support of those affected by HIV on the following social media channels:
- Website: http://www.adaywithhiv.com/
- Get more facts about HIV in the U.S. at: http://www.cdc.gov/actagainstaids/basics/statistics.html
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A Day with HIV is presented by POSITIVELY AWARE, the most widely-read HIV treatment journal in the U.S., published by the non-profit AIDS service organization, Test Positive Aware Network. This year’s campaign is being conducted in partnership with Let’s Stop HIV Together, an HIV awareness and anti-stigma program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This post was made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.