A couple of months ago, Tony Morrison, a double-Emmy-winning producer and journalist for Good Morning America made headlines when he wrote a personal essay about living with HIV.
Talking to Queerty, Morrison says how “overwhelmingly freeing” it was to talk about his status after keeping quiet about it for eight years.
Looking visibly relaxed over a Zoom call, he says of his post-essay life, “I do feel the happiest ever.”
Morrison, 32, grew up in Winter Garden in Florida. He moved to New York nine ago.
“At the time, I noticed a campaign across New York City for HIV testing. Friends would go and get tested together in a mobile testing location outside of neighborhood bars and clubs in Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village,” he wrote.
“I suppose it was ‘fashionable’ to get tested and receive a negative test result but I certainly didn’t know of anyone living with HIV at the time. And there was no education, at least in my spheres, explaining what to do if you were to receive a positive result.”
Upon taking a 20-minute home test (fearful of anyone seeing him at a testing center), Morrison learned of his HIV+ status.
The result left him devastated. He’d only recently come out publicly after writing a heartfelt Facebook posting.
In that instant, looking at the result, his dreams of moving to New York and enjoying his new gay life in the big city shattered. Morrison knew little about the reality of living with HIV today, and he also carried around the stigma society continues to hold toward the virus.
“Shame, fear, guilt and often, anguish”
He said it took him eight years, and a global pandemic, to state openly he was living with HIV.
“Not a day has gone by that I didn’t feel shame, fear, guilt, and often, anguish. And I have lived every single one of those days carrying a weight of humiliation because that’s what society told me I should feel; that’s what our society told me I deserved.
“I allowed myself to think my shame was justified … And I convinced myself I could never be worthy of love.”
Things began to change after he found himself a good doctor who explained undetectable = untransmittable (U=U). In other words, if he’s on medication, with an undetectable viral load, he cannot pass the virus on to others and can expect to live a normal lifespan. With his doc’s help, he became undetectable within three months and that remains the case today.
Dating with HIV and dealing with rejection
However, living with the virus continued to throw up challenges, particularly in the dating sphere. At first, Morrison told people only after he’d met up with them: i.e. if a successful date looked like it might lead to something more.
“I remember the first time I shared the news with someone on a date: I earnestly thought there could be significant chemistry after a few dates, so, I felt that I had to tell them…
“‘Sorry, it’s just not my thing,’ they eventually told me.
“‘That’s not something I’m really ready for,’ another date said.
“‘What would my family think?’ another responded.”
He switched to telling people on apps before it got to the meeting stage.
“‘Yikes,’ they quickly replied. Minutes later we became unmatched on the app.”
Morrison says he stopped dating completely for a while as it hurt too much, although he’s happily now exploring that side of life again (“Please put that in bold in the story,” he laughs over Zoom. “Help me out here!”).
Even some friends and acquaintances, unaware of his status, could make cutting and ignorant comments about HIV.
“This constant stream of embarrassment, hurt, disappointment, and rejection in love and in life was cutting. I felt as if the world gave me cue after cue that I was toxic and unwanted.
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He eventually concluded, “there is never a ‘right time’ to share and disclose a chronic illness like HIV with anyone, but to me, there are the right people to share it with.”
He advises others to bring the subject of HIV up with people to test the waters and gauge their views, before deciding if it’s safe to confide in them.
“Looking back, it was never this virus that held me back from the life of normalcy I wanted, it seemed as though it was everyone around me that did. I buried myself deeper and deeper in shame and silence. The pain felt unbearable.”
Telling everyone–including mom
The pandemic prompted a rethink.
“As a journalist and producer, I’ve told countless people that their story is their superpower, but despite that mantra, I have been so afraid of and vexed by my own.
“Ironically, it was quarantine that granted me an opportunity for healing and for change. While in solitude, I realized that my worth was in my story all along. And it took staring into the mirror for many, many months to re-learn how to embrace all that I am, to pull me out of a life of trauma and shame.”
After publishing the essay, Morrison today describes the response as, “just a tidal wave of love and support. I’ve been told by some people I’m the first person they’ve come into contact with who is living with HIV, and I’ve been thanked so much by so many people, so it’s been, just overwhelming.”
Other than a few close friends and ex-dates, Morrison says not even his family knew about his status. They all found out via the essay, including his mom.
“Her sister, my aunt, is a nurse here in New York City. I was waiting for her to kind of be the mechanics of getting [the essay] to [mom]. It turns out one of my mom’s friends, actually, sent her the article. And she sent me a text, the day after, saying, ‘Do you have anything important to tell your mother?’”
“And I was just gripped with this terror of, ‘OK, this conversation needs to happen now!’ We talked it through over the weekend and she really surprised me with how loving and supportive she was. How she expressed it was, ‘Our family has been through so much, as a family, and there’s nothing we can’t do together.’ And for her to contextualize in that way … I feel like she’s the one who really fixed me, in the end.
Did her reaction prompt more fear in him than anyone else’s?
“Absolutely. And … my mom has never been anti-gay or anti-anything, but it was just that I was a late bloomer. I came out late in life, and then there was this, so my mind was really warped with the lie that this was the worst thing that could happen to your gay son, this is the nightmare. So that was in my mind all these years and it turns out that I have nothing to fear at all in the end.”
“We have a ‘no more secrets’ policy moving forward together.”
“Your diagnosis does not and should not define you.”
When it comes to offering advice to others living with HIV, besides following their doctor’s advice, Morrison warns of living in shame.
“It’s so important to not assign blame to ourselves. It took me a long time to really understand that I am not someone or something to be feared. You are not to be feared.
“Your story is your superpower, and when it comes time to share your story, lean into that. Let the opportunity find you rather than you forcing that door open at an inopportune time, but to listen to your body and your gut and trust the life you’re living.”
Morrison believes that only by talking about HIV can we tackle the stigma.
“And just being kinder to one another. Especially within our own community. Educating each other, and making sure we’re all on the same page. It’s incumbent on all of us to be educated and to stay healthy and encourage that of one another. And to support all members of our community. Your diagnosis does not and should not define you.”
Since coming out about his status, Good Morning America broadcast a one-to-one chat between Morrison and Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram about developments in living with HIV. Morrison looks forward to readjusting to being a little more in the public eye and continuing to educate around HIV. He recently graced the cover of HIV+ magazine, with the publication naming him its ‘Person of the Year.’
After living in shame and the shadow of HIV for eight years, Morrison says the response he received to his essay reassured him: “This was the right thing to do, and that it was done in the right way.”
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