“Thinking back, in some weird way, it’s probably the most intimate relationship I’ve ever had,” Jeffrey Newman says, of living with HIV. “It’s incredibly personal, on multiple levels.”
HIV has been part of Newman’s life since day one of adulthood, making his belief that “we are a sum of our parts, and our experiences” particularly true when it comes to HIV.
Newman first got involved in HIV activism during his freshman year at New York University in 1985, just when AIDS was really hitting hard. “It was surreal,” he recalls. The college freshman was living in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which, he says, “aside from San Francisco, was the heaviest hit city for people dying from AIDS [complications]. There was a bizarre campaign that started at the time, where everyone wore safety pins in their shirts to show they practiced safe sex.”
To the young student activist, groups like ACT UP seemed vaguely distant and “primarily made up of older gay men, who were literally watching all their friends die.” Newman only knew two people who had HIV. One was a high school buddy. The other was a friend of a friend.
A few years later, things changed “pretty drastically,” and the disease finally hit home for Newman, when one of his best friends suddenly died from AIDS complications.
“No one knew he had AIDS,” Newman remembers. “He just left town one day, which we later found out was to go back home to Rochester and die.” It affected Newman profoundly, and set him on the path to becoming an activist. Newman’s grief deepened when his first love passed away. Newman was 25, his partner 23 years old. The next three years felt like a blur, with one death after another.
“I lost another best friend, a dozen close friends, and countless acquaintances. My life suddenly became this giant red ribbon. I wore the pin. My checks had a red ribbon on them. I went to vigils. I volunteered my ass off, and sat on committees and boards of as many organizations as I could. I even chaired the AIDS Walk in Miami, with Rosie O’Donnell and Cindy Crawford as my grand marshals.”
In May, 2001, Newman’s boyfriend tested positive. Newman followed protocol and got tested too. He was shocked when his test came back positive and he took it pretty hard. Despite 14 years of being an activist, Newman suddenly realized he actually knew very little of what it meant to be a person living with HIV. “It’s like, I thought I knew everything, and quickly found out I knew nothing. Suddenly all these words like antiretroviral and viral load and T-cells, which I had heard about, were ones I needed to know — and fast. There’s a huge difference when you’re on the outside, and you look at people with the virus as ‘one of them,’ versus when you suddenly become ‘one of them’ and realize it’s not an easy club to join, but when you do, it’s a whole different world.”
Someone once asked Newman, if he could write a letter to HIV, what would he say. He simply replied, “Hello.” Not one for wallowing in self pity or negativity, Newman has never seen his status as something to be ashamed of, or to hide from. “I’ve never given it that kind of power over me. I’ve also never allowed myself to be defined [by] it.”
Still, he admits, as an advocate, the dialogue, and the script, suddenly changed. Where before he could only sympathize, now he could empathize. “I suddenly had the ability to speak about my own journey,” Newman explains. “And use it to inspire others to live positively with HIV.”
Newman says he feels kind of blessed that HIV happened when it did for him. “I wasn’t a long term survivor in the sense that I lived through the AZT years and the early days of AIDS as a person with HIV. I didn’t have that baggage. But I also wasn’t someone in their 20s coming into this in 2016, during the PrEP years. I feel like this happened to me at a time when I wasn’t so jaded as to live in a place of anger and despair, but I was affected by it enough, for so long, that I saw how much of a difference I could make by using my story as a means to help others.”
That’s what propelled him to become more visible, coming out to the world on social media in 2011. He says things took off once he started focusing on curbing HIV ignorance and proving it got better for people living with HIV, just as it does for LGBT youth.
“It’s something I’m enormously proud of,” Newman admits. In 2013, when he decided to launch his own blog-meets-inspiration-campaign on PositivelyJeffrey.com, and on social media, including a Facebook page called “HIV and AIDS. Get The Facts. Curb The Ignorance. Proving It Gets Better.”
“I was inspired to use the tag line, ‘More than just a status,’ meaning that being positive is more than just a status — it’s a state of mind, and of being. It’s not only about being HIV-positive. It’s about living life in a positive way.”
Newman may now be better known as Positively Jeffrey, but he’s also a respected communications consultant and an award-winning journalist. He played a crucial role in developing the online presence of Out magazine, where he served as president and CEO of Out.com [Editor’s note: Out is owned by our parent company Here Media.]
Newman, who lives in New York City, with his partner of 12 years, says amazing things have happened to him as a result of Positively Jeffrey and being so open and public about his status.
“People from all over the world have been moved or inspired by how I live my life,” he explains. “I got an email at Christmas time from a kid in his early 20s, living in a small, Midwestern city, who had just tested positive, and was being shunned by his family and friends. What came from that was this beautiful friendship. And it’s not just people living with HIV, but all kinds of people — gay and straight, old and young.”
One mother wrote that she shared Newman’s story with her teenage daughter, who was inspired to turn it into a school project; another shared his journey with her 13-year-old son, who’s living with a disability.
She wanted to show him that just because you are different or are living with something that others aren’t, you can do it in a positive way and not allow it to define you. How beautiful is that?”