“GIPA/MIPA [Greater involvement of people with AIDS/Meaningful involvement of people with AIDS] — we’re all tired of hearing it, but experiencing it is different,” says Richard Dalton. “PWA lives it and breathes it.”
Dalton is a fast-talking live wire whose past as a street-involved punk who transformed into a high-powered salesman hasn’t faded. “PWA really helped me develop as a person beyond HIV. It’s been an interesting journey,” he laughs. “I tested positive four years ago. I worked in fashion retailing for a big international company. I was knee-deep in cocaine with bottle service everywhere, and my addictions led to HIV. I became real bad real fast, and in six weeks my T-cells dropped to AIDS level. I had to confide in someone, and it was a bad disclosure. I got legal advice from a lawyer and HALCO and took a settlement and walked away from a career. I was careerless, facing poverty, had lost my identity and was going through recovery at the same time. And still I wasn’t desperate enough — I didn’t want to identify as HIV-positive. I grew up with safe sex; the stigma really comes up.
“Finally I came into PWA for a bag of food. I was embarrassed but it was the best decision I ever made. They invited me to a speakers’ evening, therapy and support groups — this was the missing piece. I was told, ‘Hey, get off your ass” and that I didn’t have to be a monk and go into seclusion. PWA helped me grow and find my legs again. They’re not bringing HIV people in to stuff envelopes; it’s not just getting labour — the sky’s the limit. Each person needs something different out of it, but it’s also, What can this person contribute?”
Dalton worked at the front desk before being invited to join the Speakers Bureau. “Who am I to speak about my experience? No one’s HIV is more important than anyone else’s. But it’s all about where you fit into the landscape. This is still out there, and it is still going on. We’re just so familiar with it that we’re in denial. I had my tail between my legs about being HIV-positive, but within six months I had gone from being afraid to access a food bank to speaking in front of over 800 people.
“HIV is a crash course in humanities. My relationship with the gay community wasn’t healthy — it was just the bar scene. Now I see there is this rich community of activists. HIV was the entry point, but I don’t want to work just with HIV; I want to work with gay street youth. I’m going to George Brown in the fall to become a community worker. I can be a catalyst for change. HIV and PWA were the two-by-four in the back of the head to make it happen.
“Some people criticized me for living and breathing HIV. ‘You’re drowning in it; this can’t be healthy.’ But it gets me out of my HIV. I’m not a victim. It’s all the in-between stuff that’s not on the brochure — the haircuts, the theatre, the inspiration. My turning point from a health perspective was getting that first massage. It all recontextualized. Someone was putting care into my well-being, and it was the first time I’d been touched in a long time. It got the ball rolling for self-care. For them it was just part of a day’s work, but what it meant to this individual is huge and symbolic. Lots of healing has nothing to do with your blood count.”