Social Worker Isadore Boni uses personal experience to raise HIV/AIDS awareness
By Bianca Meza, December 2019 issue.
That is what Isadore Boni says is his
outlook on life after living with a HIV diagnosis for 17 years and the
challenges that come with the virus.
Boni, 52, was born and raised on the San
Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona. He graduated from Arizona State University with
a bachelor’s degree in social work and then attended the University of Southern
California for a master’s degree.
While in Los Angeles, Boni was recruited by
his tribe and became a social worker. However, in 1999 when Boni was 29, a trip
back to Phoenix changed his life forever.
“I never got into the gay life,” Boni said.
“In 1999 I stepped into my very first gay bar. I started getting comfortable
with my sexuality, and I made friends in the gay community. About two years
later, in 2001, I started getting symptoms.”
Boni said he began getting symptoms for the
human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, such as night sweats, weight loss and a
cold that would not go away.
“Looking back at my behavior I knew what it
was,” Boni said. “But I didn’t get tested. I didn’t get tested because at the
time the climate of HIV was different than it is now. Back then people were
still terrified and so I ignored it.”
A year later, after the symptoms got worse
and Boni felt weaker day by day, he decided to get tested.
Boni’s results came back positive. In that
moment he knew he could no longer live on the San Carlos reservation because
word was going to get out, and he knew his family was going to live with the
stigma of having a family member with HIV.
Therefore, Boni decided to move back to
Phoenix and start from scratch. With only a backpack and a change of clothes,
in 2002 Boni was homeless with HIV and also diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
In 2004 he was ready to tell his story. He
was interviewed by Mary Kim Titla, a Native American advocate journalist, and
Boni’s cousin. The story aired on World AIDS Day and Boni then became the
Native face of AIDS in Phoenix. He began speaking at schools and traveled
throughout the United States to speak to Native Americans about preventing
HIV/AIDS. He also was interviewed by local newspapers such as The Arizona
“I got a lot
of media,” Boni said. “People were following me around with their cameras. I
really felt like Princess Diana there for a while.”
However, it was difficult for some members
of Boni’s tribe to accept the news.
“I got rejected, put down, and relatives
disowned me,” Boni said. “I was accused of turning my reservation into an AIDS
reservation. And I expected it. I didn’t expect people to just embrace me right
away because I’m gay and I have HIV, but I felt free.”
With that freedom Boni felt more powerful
and decided to use his platform to educate people. He was able to bring HIV
education and testing to his tribe. He also brought 25 agencies from Phoenix to
provide education and information on National Native American AIDS Awareness
Day in 2010. That same year, Boni also advocated for a tribal HIV privacy law
which was passed by his tribal council in 2012 and now exists in the tribal
Fawn Tahbo, who is the program manager for
the Phoenix Indian Center, said people like Boni are what Native communities
“Thanks to people like Boni the movements
are getting bigger,” Tahbo said. “These conversations need to happen. It’s the
only way for our Native brothers and sisters to progress.”
R.J. Shannon, HIV activist and friend of
Boni, admires the work he has done for the community.
“Boni has made a lot of wonderful change
for a lot of people,” R.J. said. “One of the things he has done, that’s hard
for people to understand, is to look at the world through not just his lens,
but through the lens of others who have the same experience.”
In 2010 Boni ran his first half-marathon
wearing a white shirt with the words “AIDS Survivor” written on it. In that
same year his Hepatitis C went into undetectable status, which Boni credits to
his running. Since then, he has completed eight half-marathons and three full
marathons running for HIV/AIDS awareness.
“2019 is my 17th year with HIV,” Boni said. “My outlook today is ‘bring it.’ No matter how hard it is, the HIV, the homophobia, just fight it. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”