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D.C. Gay Group Battles 'AIDS Fatigue'

Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses.
Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

Though he called himself "Mr. Latex" years ago, Henderson admits that he didn't always use a condom. Unprotected sex is "the forbidden fruit," he says. When he contracted the virus, neither he nor the guy he was dating ever said anything about HIV. Each had assumed the other was negative.

"People can say that it's my fault. And it is, they're totally right, 100 percent accurate," Henderson says. "Was it my fault that I didn't use condoms? Yes. Why are people still smoking? Why are people putting 10 spoons of sugar in their coffee? Can I let my HIV status affect my life now? No."

Henderson, who is white and grew up the oldest of four children, lives in Northeast Washington with his boyfriend of 2 1/2 years. The boyfriend, who asked not to be named, works for the government and is HIV-negative.

"I gotta live with this," Henderson goes on, "and I wanted to help other guys live with it too."

The Poz Attitude

E-mails land in Henderson's inbox, notes filled with so much fear and anxiety and heartbreak that, after a while, even he wonders, "How can I read this?" But he does. Each new e-mail. Every day.

There's the guy looking for an HIV specialist because he tested positive two weeks ago. The guy who's applying for a new job and worries about disclosing his HIV status. The guy who writes: "Today is Saturday, July 8. . . . I am a 37 yr old Hispanic in D.C. . . . slowly drifting into a depression."

As the head of D.C. Poz, Henderson moderates the group's Web site, ; plans events and outings, such as a white-water rafting trip over Labor Day weekend; and recruits new members nonstop.

He meets people all over. At the Metropolitan Community Church, the gay-friendly Northwest congregation where Henderson has been the youth director for five years. And at gay bars such as JR's, where one recent evening he spotted a biohazard-symbol tattoo on a man's left calf. Henderson hurried to his Mini Cooper and returned with a small, glossy "Summer Fun With the DCYngPozSocials" flier.

"All the energy I put in the group is because I know how hard it is out there," he says. "It's almost like a recovery process for me."

There are other support groups for gay men with HIV, from Louisville Poz Buddies to San Diego Young Positives to Strength in Numbers in New York. The Health Options and Positive Energy Foundation has been in the metro area since the '80s. A thirtysomething, who declined to be identified for this story, started the D.C. Young Poz Socials in May 2003. Henderson, an office assistant in a D.C. law firm, joined that spring.

Washington has a vibrant gay community, but that doesn't mean there aren't those for whom the phrase "I work for the government," uttered in a bar like JR's, is sometimes code for "I'm not out at work." And it's another thing to be openly gay and HIV positive. It can almost be like coming out for the second time.

D.C. Poz is not for dating or hooking up, Henderson says, but relationships are inevitable. If it weren't for the group, he says, he probably wouldn't have met other HIV-positive men, including those in desperate need of a community, a sense of belonging. Young men such as Josh.

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