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The Most Amazing People Living With HIV: 2022 Hall of Fame
The Amazing Hall of Famers
Over the last 8 years, we have profiled hundreds of Amazing People Living with HIV in Plus’s annual celebratory list. While, in addition to them, countless thousands work tirelessly around the globe every day in the fight against HIV and its stigma — here are just a few honorable mentions of folks who’ve previously landed on our list and remain dedicated to the fight.
Drag entertainer Ongina is no stranger to leading the pack. She was on the very first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, was one of the first reality stars to come out on TV about living with HIV — and was on Plus magazine’s first list of Amazing People Living with HIV back in 2014!
Though the talented and adorable Filipino-American entertainer (who, like most queens, uses she/her pronouns when in drag) did not win the reality competition back in 2009, she made history in her own way. After winning a challenge which entailed creating a public service announcement about HIV, Ongina broke down on the main stage and disclosed her status in a moving speech that had everyone in the room in tears — including host RuPaul.
When she graced the cover of Plus in 2017, Ongina reflected on the emotional moment, saying “coming out publicly about my HIV status wasn’t because I had a plan for it. It was because I won a challenge that was so close to my heart.”
“At one point, I was really ashamed of being HIV-positive,” she added. “[After being diagnosed], I didn’t want to have a sexual relationship, I didn’t want to talk about it. I was in denial, I was depressed.” And then she says that “something in my system just switched and said, You know what? I can’t be like this anymore. I’m not this person!”
After returning to the Drag Race franchise for All Stars season 5 in 2019, Ongina’s star power has only continued to rise. These days she stays busy performing all over the globe, has nearly half a million followers on Instagram alone, and continues to be an advocate for others living with HIV through organizations like amfAR. She’s also got to flex her acting chops in Netflix’s AJ and theQueen and recently landed a role in an upcoming film about conversion therapy called Unfix (due out in 2023) in which she’ll play an “LGBTQ+ advocate,” according to IMDB.
Venita Ray, 2016
Venita Ray was celebrated as one of Plus’s Most Amazing People Living with HIV in 2016. Once a teen mom struggling with addiction, Ray eventually got clean, raised her daughter alone, worked full time, and put herself through law school.
“I thought that growing up in an alcoholic, dysfunctional home, becoming a teen mother at 15, dropping out of high school, getting sober from drugs and alcohol at 28, and being a single parent working every day and going to school at night for 10 years…were the greatest struggles in my life,” Ray told Plus at the time.
But in 2003 — as a 44-year-old Black woman with 18 years of sobriety who had just started her dream job as an attorney in Washington, D.C. — she was diagnosed with HIV.
While she admits it was a struggle, Ray says she was able to come to terms with her HIV diagnosis and be open about her status “because of the courage of others before more. It is my honor to know that I can be that source of inspiration for others.”
Since then, Ray has dedicated her life to helping others living with HIV. Her many contributions to the cause over the years include partnering with TPAN and Positively Aware to help create “A Day With HIV,” a photo campaign that fights HIV stigma; working with Houston’s Legacy Community Health as a public affairs field specialist; and developing Legacy’s Positive Organizing Project, which trains HIV-positive people to become political advocates.
Currently she serves as co-executive director of PWN (Positive Women’s Network), a membership-based support organization for women living with HIV.
“We all are at different places in acceptance of being HIV-positive and deciding where and how to get involved,” Ray says. “I love watching others go from shame to acceptance — to realizing they are part of the movement of strong activists around the world.”
Regan Hofmann, 2016
Regan Hofmann has made it her mission to fight fear and stigma. She’s been doing so since she appeared on the cover of POZ magazine in 2006, above the words: “I am no longer afraid to say I have HIV.”
Ten years later, when she was named as one of Plus’s Most Amazing People Living with HIV, Hofmann admitted that, even in that moment, she had still been afraid: “My fear of HIV-related stigma and how that would impact my family, friends, and myself was so powerful initially, that for 10 years after my diagnosis I only told a tiny group.”
“There is nothing shameful about having HIV,” she added. “I came to realize that I didn’t do anything for which I should be vilified. After all, what had I done? I had unprotected sex with someone I trusted and cared for. I did what each of our mothers have done. That the virus was present when I made that choice and not when others did doesn’t make me a bad person — it makes me a biologically unlucky one.”
Hofmann broke the mold by showing the world that HIV isn’t solely a gay man’s disease, but a universal one — a journey beautifully covered in her memoirI Have Something to Tell You.
In her career as an HIV advocate, Hofmann has made a tremendous impact on HIV policy, first as a board member of amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) and then as a policy officer in UNAIDS (The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS). She’s also frequently and fearlessly stood in front of Congress, the White House, and the nation’s TV viewers on various news and talk programs to discuss the issues that surround living with HIV.
In December of 2021, Hofmann was promoted to the role of senior adviser of policy, advocacy, and knowledge at UNAIDS.
“If HIV carried no stigma, more of us living with HIV would know our status and access the treatment that not only keeps us healthy but that also suppresses our viral loads so we are virtually non-infectious,” Hofmann added, referring the scientific fact now known as U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable). “Those who contribute to HIV-related stigma undermine our ability to resolve the pandemic. As stigma is largely fueled by fear, we must continue to educate people about the latest scientific facts to help them move from fear to compassion.”
Jesús Guillén, 2018
In 2018, we honored San Francisco’s Jesús Guillén — a talented musician and vocalist, photographer, spiritual healer, and long-term survivor of HIV — as one of our Most Amazing People of the Year. Born in San Luis Potosi, in central Mexico, Guillén says, “I’m literally a jungle boy.” He grew up in a stone house in the small rural town of about 200 people and “no cars.”
Guillén knew he was gay as a child but felt unable to come out until he came to America in the mid-1980s. Hoping to obtain citizenship through President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program, Guillén learned a blood test was required and being HIV-positive would get him deported. He had only just learned of his diagnosis and had told no one — until he asked a friend to take the blood test for him. He says he feels no guilt over having done so because he felt that his life depended upon it.
“Going back to my country being positive, I would die. Why would I come out [about living with HIV] when they would tell me to leave?”
After living with HIV for over 30 years now, Guillén unfortunately suffers from some of the ailments common to long-term survivors. He is disabled from neuropathy (a form of nerve damage), a side effect from an early drug regimen that was used to treat HIV before today’s highly effective antiretrovirals came along. Guillén also went through a brutal battle with lymphoma and suffers from PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Mental health issues are why Guillén founded his Facebook group, HIV Long-Term Survivors, a few years ago (now over 5,000 members strong).
“I like to think that we are helping with the main problems [for long-term survivors] of isolation and loneliness,” he says.
Guillén appeared in Last Men Standing, the 2016 award-winning documentary film about long-term survivors. He works as a consultant on aging and HIV through numerous organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and continues to pursue his creative passions.
Emil Wilbekin, 2019
Trailblazing media mogul Emil Wilbekin was the cover star of Plus’s 2019 Amazing People Living with HIV issue.
For years, Wilbekin has been carving out a space in a media market traditionally dominated by white men, helping to birth some of the biggest movements in Black creativity while serving as a founding editor of Vibe magazine, editor at large of Essence, and editor in chief at Giant magazine. Wilbekin understands what it means for him to be visible and a representation for a community that has often had to live in the shadows.
“Live in your truth,” was the first piece of advice Wilbekin offered to the new generation of Black queer and gay men who stand upon his shoulders. “Don’t let anyone tell you what you aren’t. Be really proud of who you are because you stand on the shoulders of a lot of men who didn’t have the freedom to be their most authentic selves as Black queer men.”
Wilbekin says his foundation Native Son is a “movement and a platform to bring Black gay and queer men together to be in a safe space…. I think it’s important that as a marginalized community, we build ourselves up to empower, inspire, and support each other. I’ve seen it in white spaces and felt, Why don’t we have that? So I decided to create it.”
It was at the first Native Son Awards (created to honor Black gay men in activism, media, and entertainment) in 2016, that Wilbekin would reveal one of his biggest secrets to the world: he was a person living (and thriving) with HIV.
“It was scary to disclose my status,” Wilbekin admitted. “I’ve carried the virus for more than 15 years and I’m healthy and I go to the doctor, but I felt ashamed I didn’t tell my mother. The person closest with me and that’s where I felt uncomfortable. I disclosed at the Native Son Awards because I felt how could I lead a movement and not live my truth fully?”
This year, according to HypeBeast, Native Son collaborated with Bloomingdale’s on a collection of self-affirming T-shirts, emblazoned with fun phrases like “Black Boy Joy” and “People Be Gay.”