BY JAMES HARPER
Renee “LadyByrd” Burgess is a minority within several minorities. She is Black, female, a single mom, and she is HIV positive.
Burgess found out she was HIV positive after learning she was pregnant. She said she was infected in 2007 by her husband who had knowingly infected her without telling her of his status.
Burgess’ husband was convicted and sentenced to prison after being charged with having sex with her and not divulging his HIV status.
“My children keep my hope for living alive. I can say on the new research and (new drug) discoveries that are being made do that (keep me alive), but I’d be lying. It’s the smiles and the laughter I get from my children,” said Burgess, who is now an HIV/AIDS activist.
Story of forgiveness
She will be the keynote speaker at the “I Am My Brother/Sister’s Keeper” HIV/AIDS Conference Saturday at Bethune-Cookman University’s L. Gale Lemerand School of Nursing, 739 W. International Speedway Blvd.
The March 30 conference, hosted by the Minority AIDS Network of Volusia/Flagler, is free to the public.
The 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. conference will include a continental breakfast, lunch, door prizes and lots of information.
“We are delighted to have Ms. Burgess as one of our conference speakers,” said Dr. Bonnie J. Sorensen, director of the Volusia County Health Department. “The purpose of this conference is to provide important information so people can make informed decisions about living healthy lifestyles, sex, stigma and faith.”
Burgess said it is important for her to share her story to help others make informed decisions.
“My ex-husband has been out of jail since March 16, 2012. He served four years out of a five-year sentence. I forgave him years ago. Before I even had him arrested, I forgave him,” Burgess told the Daytona Times.
“I just made sure he knew that I would never forget. He wants nothing to do with the kids, and I have 100 percent sole custody of them. However, he will be obligated to provide support for them.’’
‘Talk about it’
She also says it’s important to open up to family.
“People are so afraid to even just tell immediate family because of the stigma associated with the disease.
They have to know that it’s OK to talk about it and that their story has a right to be heard,” she said.
“No matter how they became infected – the story they have whether it’s about their status or their past life situations – can help probably save someone from taking that same path,” she said.
Healthy, active life
In addition to her children giving her inspiration, Burgess says she stays healthy by taking her medicines.
She also changed her diet to include and exclude certain things. “I also work out and I stay active. When you’re not active and you just sit around doing nothing, your body gets weak and restless,” she noted.
Burgess said over time it has become easier telling people she is HIV positive. Because of her honesty, she is now in a new relationship with someone who is not HIV positive.
“Surprisingly, it’s not as hard as people think it is for someone to be in a relationship and be HIV positive. When you are open about your status and people see that you’re willing to educate and you’re not trying to hide it, they seem to flock to you,” she explained.
Honest about status
Burgess admits that before her HIV status became widely known she had a very hard time dating.
“That was mainly because I had to figure out how I disclose. Do I say it to them upfront or do I wait until we’ve dated and things seem to be progressing into a relationship? Ultimately, I decided to tell potential relationship partners upfront and that got negative and positive responses and was definitely a learning experience,” she said.
Burgess said she particularly likes to give advice to young people who are dating or thinking about engaging in sex with someone.
“I tell them that the relationship needs to always have an open line of communication. I encourage them to know their status for any kind of STD before being sexually active in a new relationship,” she remarked.
“A lot of times people don’t get tested when leaving one love interest and going to the next and that’s how a lot of diseases are being passed. If they don’t want to get tested or don’t want to show you their results to any kind of STD test, then that’s your sign to move on.’’
A listening ear
Burgess also said she tells people who ask her advice to always use protection.
“That doesn’t mean just a condom. There are other protective measures that people need to use when engaging in all sexual encounters, especially oral sex,” she continued.
In spite of her status, Burgess is leading a happy and productive life. In addition to raising her children, she is enrolled in college and loves telling her story to others.
“I have come to realize that every day I’m reaching and accomplishing a goal. Every day I am reaching out to someone who needs advice, encouragement, or just simply a listening ear,” she added.
“I never in a million years would have imagined the impact that I have made on so many people and to just think about all the lives in the future that will be impacted gives me butterflies of joy.’’
For more information and to register for the conference, call 386-274-0500, ext. 0662.