Woman diagnosed with HIV at 19 on what she wants others to know: 'HIV does not discriminate'

·6 min read

At 19 years old, Marvelyn Brown thought she’d found her Prince Charming. The Nashville resident grew up watching Disney princess movies and “longed and yearned for my Prince Charming,” Brown, who is now 37, tells Yahoo Life. She thought she’d found him in her boyfriend, Danny Perry II.

Although Brown and Perry always used protection, one night, when Perry shared that he didn’t have a condom, the couple had unprotected sex. Brown remembers thinking that “the worst that could happen from this night was definitely pregnancy, but this was my Prince Charming,” she says, knowing that they were in a committed relationship, which helped allay her concerns. “Growing up, that was my only goal in life was to start my own family.”

What Brown did not know was that Perry is HIV-positive. (In 2020, Perry was convicted of engaging in intimate contact with a woman — not Brown — without disclosing his HIV status, which is a felony in Tennessee; Perry, who allegedly did the same thing to multiple women, is currently serving a six-year sentence.)

Three weeks later, Brown was in the hospital with pneumonia. “A couple of weeks after that I was diagnosed with HIV,” she says, adding, “I immediately thought I was going to die and that my life was over.”

Before being hospitalized and diagnosed with HIV, Brown says she was a “healthy, young athlete” in track and basketball and “just an all-American teenager.” She says, “I absolutely did not think that HIV was a concern or an issue for me or even my peers.”

Marvelyn Brown in high school. She was diagnosed with HIV at 19 years old. (Photo courtesy of Marvelyn Brown)
Marvelyn Brown in high school. She was diagnosed with HIV at 19. (Photo courtesy of Marvelyn Brown)

Brown was not alone. For many people, particularly younger people, HIV — or human immunodeficiency virus, which “weakens a person’s immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection,” per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — isn’t something that’s on their radar. As Brown puts it, “HIV was not on my radar either until I was told I was HIV positive.”

Although young people in the U.S. “have never known a world without HIV,” write the authors of a 2016 research paper in the American Journal of Public Health, they have “no memory of the challenging times when HIV was almost always fatal, before medical science developed effective treatment.” And yet the disease is having “a significant impact among the young.”

In 2019, there were more than 34,000 new HIV infections in the U.S., according to HIV.gov. Of those, the highest number of new HIV infections was among people aged 25 to 29. In addition, from 2015 through 2019, HIV diagnoses increased among people 13 to 24 years old, as well as those aged 35 to 44 and 45 to 54.

Young people are also the least likely to know their HIV status compared to other age groups. What’s more, 46 percent of sexually active high school students didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex, according to the CDC.

Along with age, race is also a factor. Both Black and Hispanic/Latino communities are “disproportionately affected by HIV compared to other racial/ethnic groups,” according to HIV.gov. In 2019, for example. Black people made up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for 40 percent of those living with HIV. Black women are also “disproportionately affected” by HIV compared to women of other races. According to HIV.gov, “the rate of new HIV infections among Black women is 11 times that of white women and four times that of Latina women.”

But not everyone realizes the risks. Brown says she knew “nothing about people surviving with HIV. I didn't know what being HIV positive meant. And I had no idea about the stigma and the discrimination that surrounds the virus.”

But as Brown states, “The ‘H’ in HIV stands for human. If you are a human, you can get this.”

Brown quickly realized “not only that I was uneducated” about the virus, “but a lot of my peers were as well,” she says. So she decided to share her story with others, eventually speaking at more than 100 colleges and universities across the country and becoming an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate. Brown also won an Emmy Award in 2007 for Outstanding National Public Service Announcement about HIV awareness and penned a memoir in 2008, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive.

Although Brown says it was never her intention to become a public figure or “a face” for HIV/AIDS, “it felt like my diagnosis was not in vain.”

Brown has spoken at more than 100 colleges and universities across the country to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. (Photo courtesy of Marvelyn Brown)
Brown has spoken at more than 100 colleges and universities across the country to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. (Photo courtesy of Marvelyn Brown)

Although there is no cure for HIV, major advances in treatment — namely, antiretroviral therapy (ART) — have been made since the first reported cases of HIV in the U.S. in 1981. Although HIV is still “a major global public health issue,” according to the World Health Organization, today HIV-positive people living in the U.S. and Canada who receive treatment early have a life expectancy that’s similar to “that of the general population,” according to the Lancet — a significant change from the epidemic’s early years when people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS were only expected to live one to two years (and in some cases, mere weeks or months).

There’s even hope for a vaccine: Moderna and IAVI recently launched clinical trials for a potential HIV vaccine using the same mRNA technology in Moderna’s (and Pfizer’s) COVID vaccine.

Brown needs to take her antiretroviral medication “every day at the same time,” adding that having to swallow seven “horse pills” daily isn’t easy. Despite that, she says, “the stigma and the discrimination is the hardest part of the virus.” But Brown believes that education is the key to reducing that stigma.

Despite the fact that talking about HIV — from the behaviors that put people at risk to how to protect yourself against the virus — has been “pushed to the sides,” she says, “people are still getting infected and people are still dying. It’s still important for people to know their status.”

Sharing her own personal experience is also Brown’s way of helping people — particularly young people — understand that this can happen to them, too. “I want people to know that I’m just like them,” she says. “And HIV does not discriminate.”

Brown, who has been HIV positive for 19 years, adds: “Living a long and healthy life with HIV, it ain’t easy. But I love myself enough to protect myself and to keep myself happy and just always remember, I am HIV positive but I’m Marvelyn Brown first.”

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