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Bob Poe is #18 of Our Amazing HIV+ People of 2016

Bob Poe is #18 of Our Amazing HIV+ People of 2016

Bob Poe

The former head of Florida's Democratic Party came out to his constituents, making him #18 of Our 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016

When Bob Poe announced his candidacy to the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s 10th District last January, he hadn’t yet come out publically about his HIV status. From first glance, he seems like any other politician: a good-looking entrepreneur and successful businessman. Behind the suit, however, Poe is anything but your run of the mill politico.

Even though he’s “surprised and humbled” for being selected as one of Plus magazine’s Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016, his colleagues would say his success is anything but surprising. Media consultant Joel Silberman once described Poe as one of those “candidates that take my breath away with their courage.”

If he wins — and he has a real chance of doing so — Poe will be the first openly HIV-positive person elected to Congress. However historic the future might be, he remains passionate about representing the people in his district while offering political representation for the disease, which has hardly existed.

“There hasn’t been a real trailblazer in this area at a political level,” Poe said in an interview shortly after coming out publically on Facebook in June, shortly before the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. “I don’t know why, in the scheme of things, that God decided I would be HIV-positive. But I can tell you that I feel a responsibility — an obligation now — to share my experience.”

He was reminded of that obligation after meeting a young woman while campaigning on the road. She was recently diagnosed and feared that her life was over.  “I just wanted to hug her and tell her that she wasn’t alone,” he recalls to Watermark Online, “that I’m HIV-positive and that I’m happy and healthy and she will be too. But I couldn’t…” That was the moment he knew it was time to come out publically — an experience he describes as liberating.

“I’m proud that I was finally able to overcome the fear and shame of living with HIV that I’ve been unnecessarily carrying around for the last 18 years,” he tells Plus. “Sharing my status has been more liberating than I could have ever imagined. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected to Congress, I hope to help erase the stigma and ‘other-ness’ that surrounds HIV and those of us living with it.”

Poe says he was first diagnosed in 1998, and the early years were especially hard. While he was chair of the state Democratic Party in 2000, Poe would tear the labels off his medicine bottles, shred them, and drive to a far off location to discard the empty bottles in a random dumpster, terrified someone would find out. He lived like this for years until one day he received clarity.

“Shortly after my diagnosis I determined that I wouldn’t let it define or defeat me,” he says to Plus. “As a result, I’ve been able to achieve all my hopes and dreams.”  At 62 years old, with a daughter from a previous marriage and a new husband, Poe is all out of secrets. All that’s left is a bright future — one he hopes will lead him to the steps of Congress.

From the looks of it, this former head of Florida's Democratic Party is not only breaking barriers, he’s wrecking the political establishment to bits.

The areas he is most focused on are economic empowerment, education and job training, criminal justice reform and constituent services. Poe supports an increase in the minimum hourly wage to $15 — an obvious lesson he learned from being a successful businessman: “Business people want their customers to be rich, so why would they want their employees to be poor?” he once said.

His focus on job training addresses an economic climate change, which he says is being motivated by technology. He has also been working to transform a criminal justice system he believes persecutes people of color. He’s even knocked on doors to find “people that have been disenfranchised for our economy and our entire society.”

Looking at Poe’s career, it’s not hard to imagine him as the 12-year-old who once skipped work at his father’s convenience store and wandered into the Sarasota County Democratic Headquarters. From handing out leaflets in 1966 to heading Florida’s Democratic Party, and running for Congress; he’s gone far, even if it has taken fifty years. But, he believes there’s so much left to be done, and — just like he isn’t willing to be quiet about his HIV status — he’s not willing to wait another day to get down to business.

“There’s an old saying,” he writes on his campaign site. “… ‘if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.’ What we’ve got now is a group of career politicians and bureaucrats that can’t seem to get anything done.”

When asked what gives him an edge, he replied: “My message, my penchant for fearless hard work and, hopefully, a measure of good luck.”

David Artavia is a New York City writer and founder of Real Gay Guy. He loves living vicariously through his friends. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.  

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