Orlando – Joee Pineda came out to his Honduran parents as a 16-year-old at Colonial High School. The parent/child struggle over his sexuality caused him to leave town after graduation for New York City.
A year later, Pineda came down with a “cold” he couldn’t shake. He moved back with his parents in Orlando. At 19, he was diagnosed with HIV and given 5 years to live. That was 1990.
Today, Pineda’s story of survival is one of 15 featured in the Faces of HIV mobile art exhibit. On Sunday, Oct. 27, the exhibit will be in downtown Orlando for the Festival Calle Orange.
“I want people to know what HIV looks like,” said Pineda, 44. “I had never heard of AIDS when I learned I had a disease that would kill me.”
Pineda is one of 15 people who are featured in the Florida Department of Health mobile exhibit, which travels to events around the state highlighting portraits, insightful interviews, poignant journal writing and video stories of Floridians living with HIV/AIDS.
The exhibit, unveiled on World AIDS Day in December 2012, gives visitors an up close and personal glimpse into the lives of people living with HIV in hopes of promoting awareness and understanding about the disease.
“People are so naÃ¯ve about it,” Pineda said. “This breaks down the stigma and opens up their eyes about the risk of unprotected sex and the need for HIV testing, so it doesn’t happen to them.”
Participants in the exhibit are various ages and backgrounds: black, white, Hispanic, men and women, straight and gay, some who are newly diagnosed along with those who have living with the disease for 30-plus years. The exhibit is in English and Spanish.
“The whole idea of the faces is to remind people that HIV is still here,” said Debbie Tucci, HIV/AIDS Program Coordinator for the Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Orange County. “We need to talk about the importance of staying negative if you are, but if you are positive how to maintain health. It’s about staying healthy.”
Currently, there are 98,530 people in Florida with HIV, which accounts for one in every 165 Florida adults. Of those numbers, 23 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women are Hispanic. In 2012, Florida ranked third in the country, behind New York and California, for new cases of HIV, according the DOH.
For the first time, Faces of HIV is adding two new “faces” to share their stories. One of them is Michael Morman, who learned he had HIV 7 years ago. Doctors misdiagnosed him with a sinus infection. They never tested him until he asked about it.
Morman retired from his job as a theme park executive and began immediately taking better care of his health. He volunteered at the GLBT Center of Central Florida, where free testing is offered.
“I want to make people aware that people living with HIV/AIDS look just like everyone else you know,” Morman said. “You can lead a happy and healthy life.”
Pineda and Morman will be on-hand at the festival in Orlando to talk to visitors of the exhibit. The trailer, which will be parked near the corner of Orange Avenue and Concord Street, attracts curious partygoers almost immediately wherever it goes.
“We educate people wherever we can – from churches and college to community centers and public schools,” Tucci said. “People need to get tested.”
In 2012, Florida ranked near the top of the list for the highest percentage of new cases between the ages of 13 and 24 with 17 percent, mostly gay men. That number rose to 20.4 percent for people living in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Brevard counties.
Tucci said Florida is a “party” state and what happens in Fort Lauderdale quickly comes to Central Florida and follows the I-4 Corridor.
“It’s a population that parties,” she said. “It’s not that straight people aren’t infected, it’s where the Centers for Disease Control finds the bulk of the cases.”
Pineda, who was once one of those gay men in his teens who unknowingly contracted HIV/AIDS, said men don’t realize how risky the carefree lifestyle can be. They think it won’t happen to them.
“I wanted to be a dancer and a model and all those dreams were crushed,” Penida said. “I wish someone had talked to me about it. That’s why I am talking to others.”
FACES OF HIV
When: Noon to 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27
Where: Festival Calle Orange Festival, Downtown Orlando, Orange Avenue and Concord Street