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Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2023-02-22



Accepting HIV status is 'strength' for Chicago athlete
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

This article shared 4983 times since Wed Mar 25, 2015
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On the first Friday in September 2005, Rob Campbell learned he was HIV-positive.

"Although the individual from whom I contracted it had contacted me in advance, I was stunned," hearing the official diagnosis, Campbell said. "I sat in the doctor's office for about 15 minutes and cried while speaking with my sister on the phone.

"Immediately [after], I attended a gay men's social that same weekend and have always said that had I not had that support, I would likely have ended my life that weekend."

He went into severe depression and didn't come out of it until January 2006.

"It was a self-induced and self-removed depression that allowed me to mope long enough to process what had happened and then move on with my life," he said. "In hindsight, I hadn't truly processed it enough, as several years went by until I could be at peace with [the diagnosis].

"I kept my status hidden for about seven or eight years. I was so ashamed of having contracted it and that was exacerbated by the stigma which is attached to the disease. It wasn't until I became involved with the Ride for AIDS Chicago that I actually started to see the light and begin talking about it."

In 2012, during the Ride For AIDS Chicago closing ceremonies, a charity bicycle ride that he has participated in annually since 2009, he admittedly started to experience "a mental and emotional shift that allowed me to fully embrace and come to be at peace with my status.

"During and immediately after closing ceremonies [in 2012], when I witnessed the Positive Peddlers ( HIV-positive riders ) walk in the closing ceremonies … the shame reached a pinnacle. Following the ceremonies, a friend of mine congratulated me on completing the ride yet again and, while I was crying because the ceremony was emotional, I was also crying because I had not been living the truth during each of the three previous Rides. Rather, I was fundraising and riding in hiding, which felt contrary to one of the missions of the Ride."

The 2012 ride led to more emotional madness over the next year before the 2013 event.

"The 2013 ride was the hardest," Campbell said. "By that summer, I had had one year to emotionally stew on the words that I had heard at the closing ceremonies the year before. In addition, I think I had become so mentally and emotionally frustrated and tired of trying [to] manage the secret that the bomb was ready to explode. The 2012 Ride itself was like every other year before: a two-day event which had little to no meaning for me, as I was participating in a numb emotional state. It truly was the closing ceremony which sparked the process to come to terms with my status."

In 2013, Campbell—a 41-year-old who lives in Andersonville and has been in Chicago for six years, working as a marketing and communications consultant—went orange.

That was his HIV status coming out.

"I was first prompted to really ponder it after hearing remarks during the [2013] opening ceremony. Then, during the course of that [first] day, I had an overwhelming battle going on in my heart and my mind," he said. "As I witnessed other riders coming into camp after me, I saw their expressions of happiness and success; they were proud of their accomplishment and, in just that moment, I happened to turn around and see [event organizer] Richard Cordova wearing his [orange] bandana [signifying that he is HIV-positive.] I immediately went to him, told him I was ready and asked to have an orange bandana. He gave me his and I wore it the next day.

"To this day, that moment is very surreal and I cannot explain in words, how it happened. In my mind, it often plays in slow motion, though I know it occurred in a matter of minutes."

Campbell admitted he was "incredibly nervous" to wear the orange bandana, as many others who also are HIV-positive do because it made him feel like a "marked man."

Campbell was quiet and kept to himself during day two of the 2013 Ride—until he broke down. He cried, struggling with the lies he led, trying to hide the truth and the shame.

But he soon was at peace, riding with pride.

"I finished the [2013] Ride wearing the bandana, and then walked in the Positive Peddlers procession during the closing ceremonies," he said. "I did it with trepidation in my heart. At that point, the wounds were fresh and I still feared the stigma that would be attached to me as people began to learn I had come out as HIV-positive."

Campbell continued his personal journey of acceptance last summer during the 2014 Ride For AIDS Chicago, speaking at the opening ceremony about his life, including his HIV status.

"I told my story about coming to terms with my status in 2013 [and], in doing so, I emphasized how the Ride had, in essence, changed my life," Campbell said. "It sounds cliché, but I fully credit RFAC with changing my life by helping me come to terms with my status so that I could be at peace with it. I spoke to how I've since told my parents, who were incredibly supportive, [how and when] I tell prospective dates and how I actually engage with strangers about the topic when it's warranted."

The 2014 ride was, for the first time in five years, an experience that Campbell "thoroughly enjoyed."

"I was not preoccupied with emotions around my status; I didn't feel like I had to prove anything because I was holding back the truth and I was able to be honest about my situation which allowed me to engage with others on a more personal level," he said.

Campbell has already registered for the 2015 ride, and will co-captain Team Shaine.

Also in 2014, Campbell participated in the quadrennial Gay Games in Cleveland, finishing the triathlon and playing softball.

"I continue to tell people that this is one sporting event that all children in this country need to attend, despite their age, gender, handicaps, skills levels and background," he said. "My feeling is that the organizers truly want it to be an inclusive event and as a result there is an overwhelming support for every participant."

Campbell is already planning to be in Paris for the 2018 Games, and he likely will have an orange bandana with him in France.

"I've learned that, what the bandana stands for is, [it] brings me strength," Campbell said. "Having it on me reminds me that, no matter what, I will not let this disease beat me. I'm strong and it motivates me to push myself to new limits and new boundaries. It is always a great reminder in the very moment which I feel like I want to quit the race that I can continue on because I've likely overcome the most difficult obstacle I will ever face.

"I'm very proud of the progress I've made. I have moved from one polar opposite to the other regarding my status. I've been able to embrace my status and, with confidence and understanding, acknowledge that if someone doesn't understand or lives in ignorance about HIV, then it's not my issue. I always encourage them to become educated, but I no longer own the emotion associated with the individuals' own issues and challenges."

Campbell's 2015 slate includes the Lifetime Indoor Tri Old Orchard in April, the Muncie ( Ind. ) Triathlon in May, Proud to Run in June, the Chicago Tri in August and the Cedar Point Half Ironman in September.

This article shared 4983 times since Wed Mar 25, 2015
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