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I Am The First

Opening Up About His HIV Status Put Him in the Driver’s Seat

Chris Wilson-Smith

Opening up to his doctor empowered this advocate in other areas of his life.

Chris Wilson-Smith is a fighter,and he knows it. “I am a resistance warrior,” the 31-year-old explains. “I am an L.A. warrior. I’m a public health warrior. I’m a capacity-building warrior. I’m a husband warrior. I’m a godddad warrior. I’m a son warrior. I’m just a warrior.”

Wilson-Smith has been an advocate from the moment he discovered he was HIV-positive a decade ago, shortly after he turned 21. Within days, he was speaking about being poz on an HIV prevention panel. He hadn’t even come out to his parents yet, but says, “I just kind of went full speed ahead with trying to help other people and trying to talk about my experience as much as I could.”

But he wasn’t always as good about advocating for himself. In the beginning, Wilson-Smith admits, “I really didn’t understand [HIV] medication. I also didn’t understand why you’d have to take certain medications and couldn’t take others. I was prescribed Truvada, Norvir, and Prezista. I didn’t know [then] that I had a resistance to Atripla and other things, because the person who [I contracted HIV from] was already on medication. I didn’t understand that for years.”

In fact, it took him becoming a case manager and having to answer his own clients’s questions before he became educated on genotypes and drug resistance.

“Talking to other people has helped me,” he says now. “I mean, I have a therapist, so I got a lot out that way, but I also think that watching those fuses connect in people’s brains, or when they go from not really caring about their health to caring about their health, that piece is amazing.”

Wilson-Smith went to school to become a social worker, but says he “kind of fell into HIV prevention, which was like the best decision I could have made. I didn’t grow up around gay people. I grew up in the church, so just being around gay people all the time, and then more specifically, HIV stuff, was just really exciting. I shared a lived experience with people, so that was something that drew me even closer and made me work harder.”

Already working in the HIV field when he became positive, Wilson-Smith acknowledges he was a little embarrassed “because there are things that I know — like I know about condoms.” And he was “a little resistant” to being open with his doctor too, because she “worked across the street from where I worked. I would see her at lunch. She knew a lot of my personal information… In the beginning, I didn’t talk to her about everything. Now I just tell her everything.”

That kind of no-holding-back communication is important, Wilson-Smith says, “because you do yourself a huge disservice when you’re not forthcoming with your physician. It also allows them to either recommend the best avenue for treatment, or just make recommendations on what you should and shouldn’t do.”

He continues: “I’d say people of color, we’re not taught to really advocate for our health. So, like in the beginning of my journey of being poz, I was recommended medication and asked no questions. I think when I started to ask questions, I started to advocate for myself on a medical level, but also in very different areas of my life. I was able to negotiate what type of sex I wanted to have, or what I was willing to do, what I wasn’t going to do, if I was using condoms or not. It just empowered me in a very, very different way. I found that advocating, or talking to my doctor, and being forthcoming and just honest, has been one of the best things. It’s been amazing.”

Wilson-Smith is now a capacity builder, doing trainings for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and training organizations on “how to actually work with people who are HIV-positive, who are gay-identified, and a lot of organization development stuff to make sure that orgs are sustainable… make it through the current political climate, but also, just always improve their services and get better.”

Wilson-Smith recently disrupted his treatment on purpose, choosing to switch drugs again. He’s long disliked the number and size of the drugs he was taking, and says that was ultimately why he decided to change.

“I just really wanted a simpler regimen. I need to be able to put it in a smaller pill case, just because I’m private. The number of pills is still around the same, it’s just a smaller pill.” But it’s also come with some unexpected side effects: “I’ve had allergies that I’ve never had, I’ve had stomach issues that I’ve never had. Now I have night sweats, and I have all of these things that I’ve never experienced, and I wish I was better prepared for that.”

A year ago, Wilson-Smith also embraced a vegan lifestyle, which he says, “kind of just changed my whole life. I started to look different and feel different.” As he moves into his 30s, Wilson-Smith says he wants to continue to prove “that being HIV-positive, or being poz, you can [be] ‘normal.’ You can work out, you can have a great quality of life, you can have a good job, and live in a great place, and just have a regular life. It doesn’t really change much.”

Going forward, he’s hoping to get into acting — another desire he’s embracing. In talking to his parents about the decision, Wilson-Smith says, “I’m like, ‘I did what I was supposed to do. I went to college. I have a job, I have a career. Now I’m doing what I wanted to do.’”

No doubt, as an actor who is out about his HIV status (one of the few actors who are), Wilson-Smith will continue to serve as a guide for other poz folks, just as he does now.

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