Put to the test: A young woman talks life with HIV
While growing up in a suburban Jewish home in Granada Hills, Kelly Gluckman never thought she could become HIV positive.
“I knew that AIDS was a huge problem in Africa, in the gay community and among drug abusers, but it was something that happened to ‘them’ over there,” Gluckman, 29, said during an interview at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org) in Beverly Hills, where she is now an activist who speaks to young people about HIV and AIDS.
“Essentially, I was a heterosexual female who had sex with men who had sex with women. So while I knew that HIV existed, I never thought it could happen to me.”
Gluckman will turn out to urge people to get free testing for the virus during an event at The Abbey in West Hollywood, hosted by the foundation in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, on June 27, National HIV Testing Day.
Despite Gluckman’s early naiveté about the virus, condom use was mandatory with every one of her partners, and Gluckman made sure to get tested for HIV every time she got together with a new boyfriend. That is, until she began dating “Adam” (not his real name), a good friend who eventually became her boyfriend when she was 22.
They were living together and had been intimate for a couple of months when, Gluckman said, her judgment lapsed and she decided to forego condoms during sex. Not long thereafter, Gluckman realized her mistake and insisted that they both get tested for HIV. On Oct. 25, 2010, she and Adam arrived at the offices of Planned Parenthood in Santa Monica, where he was called first into the doctor’s office.
“He came back and said he had tested positive, and I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Gluckman recalled. “We had the kind of relationship where we bantered all the time, so I thought he was joking. But then I looked at him and his face was white. All that was flashing through my mind was the last number of months of unprotected sex.”
Gluckman said she felt numb when her own test came back positive as well; but she perked up on the way back home to the couple’s apartment. Magic Johnson had been infected with HIV, but he was cured, she erroneously thought. A subsequent Google search revealed that while Johnson is healthy, he still has the retrovirus.
“I was crushed,” Gluckman said.
She asked Adam if he had been faithful, and whether he knew of any previous partners who could have infected him. He adamantly told her no. But before long, a mutual male friend admitted to Gluckman that he had slept with Adam while the couple was together.
“I screamed and cried,” said Gluckman, who was working as a server at a Sherman Oaks restaurant at the time.
When she confronted her boyfriend, he at first denied any infidelity. But eventually he confessed to having sex with their friend, as well as more than 12 other men before he had started dating Gluckman.
Still, she said, “One reason it took me so long to break up with Adam is that I was scared other people wouldn’t find me attractive anymore.”
She also hoped that she and Adam could face their health crisis together. But while she diligently researched the virus and arranged for the couple to be treated at the Los Angeles LGBT Center (previously the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center), Adam did nothing to help her.
“Then I noticed that he was making no effort to contact his previous partners about his HIV,” Gluckman said. “It turned out that being with Adam was like carrying a monkey on my back, apart from the cheating and the betrayal.”
Nine months after her diagnosis, Gluckman finally broke off the relationship, but her journey to getting treatment was fraught. Gluckman initially declined to take her prescribed anti-retroviral drugs “because I didn’t trust the government or the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. She even dabbled in HIV denialism. But she was alarmed when she discovered that her viral load had tripled after three months. Learning about the death of one denialist who had refused treatment finally convinced her to take the crucial drugs.
In person, Gluckman is petite, brunette, and has inspirational tattoos inked across her forearms. One of them reads, “no regrets,” which is how she now feels about her HIV.
“It’s become a blessing in disguise,” Gluckman said. It is because of her HIV that she has finally found her calling in life: as an advocate for HIV and AIDS prevention among young people.
Her activism began in 2011 when an official at the LGBT Center suggested that she participate in an advertising campaign, “Let’s Stop HIV Together,” sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. Gluckman went on to appear in an MTV documentary, “I’m Positive,” produced by Dr. Drew Pinsky, which focused on three young people living with HIV. She spoke to homeless youth and began working as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of sex education as well as lecturing to diverse young people. Gluckman also became a member of the UCLA Sex Squad, a performing troupe devoted to sex education for high school students.
“Kelly’s openness to tell her story has been invaluable for furthering [our] mission to see an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” foundation spokeswoman Cristin Klein said in an email. “Her story has allowed [us] to get her message in front of young people across the country, which has been far more receptive coming from a peer. Every time Kelly shares her story, she is helping to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV.”
Not that everything has been smooth sailing for Gluckman.
“Dating has been extremely difficult,” she said.
Gluckman has disclosed her HIV status on every first date: “I don’t want to invest my time, energy and emotion into someone who is not going to take an interest in me as a person,” she said.
Most often, her dates would tell her she is an amazing person and that they respect her — and then she would never hear from them again. When one man learned of Gluckman’s HIV status, he ordered her to leave his home.
Today, however, Gluckman is in a committed relationship going on eight months with a man she met on Tinder; her viral load is undetectable, and she takes just one pill a day to keep healthy. Her family and friends have been supportive.
When she speaks to young people, she wants them to know that “HIV can happen to anybody; viruses don’t discriminate,” she said. “But you’re not a lesser person if you have acquired the virus; the vast majority of us are sexual beings.”
She also emphasizes, “If you get HIV, it’s not the end of the world. It sucks; I’m not going to tell you it’s a walk in the park. But it can be manageable. However, you need to get tested right away and if you’re positive, take care of it. Nip it in the bud, because if you wait until you land in the hospital with full-blown AIDS, it’s already done major damage to your body and probably will have taken some years off of your life.”
Gluckman also advocates the importance of safe sex. “Since becoming HIV positive, using condoms has become something that can be fun,” she said. “I get to have as much fun as I want, because of this safety net.”
In the fall, Gluckman will attend UCLA to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts advocacy toward HIV and AIDS education.
“Through getting diagnosed, starting to do advocacy work and becom[ing] more and more passionate about it, I’ve found a real sense of purpose,” she said.