Social Worker Isadore Boni uses personal experience to raise HIV/AIDS awareness

By Bianca Meza, December 2019 issue.


“Bring it.”

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

Republic.

“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

health codes.

Fawn Tahbo, who is the program manager for

the Phoenix Indian Center, said people like Boni are what Native communities

need.

“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.”

Isadore Boni, an HIV survivor and San Carlos Apache, proudly holds the shirt he wears to marathons on October 18th, 2019 (Bianca Meza/Student Journalist)

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.”


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