HIV survivor shares personal story in hopes to educate

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Gladys Somarriba poses for a portrait in front of 2nd and Market in downtown San Francisco. March 17, 2015. (Angelica Ekeke / Xpress)

When Gladys “Gizzy” Somarriba found out she tested positive for HIV in January of 2013, she immediately worried about what her family would think of her.

“I told my mom over a text message, asking her if she would still love me,” Somarriba said. “I was crying hysterically, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want her to hate me. When I called to tell my dad, he hung up on me.”

Shortly after being diagnosed, Somarriba experienced a state of depression that led her to cut herself in self-mutilation. It was through the help of antidepressants and the creation of her Facebook page “Gizzy’s Story” that Somarriba was able to cope with her disease and help educate others.

“I know I’m helping other women through my page because they reach out to me,” Somarriba said. “If I can stop at least one person from having unprotected sex or if I can encourage at least one person to go out and get tested then I feel it is all worth it.”

Somarriba decided to get tested after finding suspicious emails on her ex-boyfriend’s iPad. Somarriba had discovered him texting another girl in the past and after seeing his response to another man’s Craigslist advertisement about a “back massage,” Somarriba considered the need to get tested.

Her boyfriend was sitting in the room next her when the nurse gave her the diagnosis. She said she knew it was her ex who infected her, but thought it was by accident. It was through social media that she discovered that her ex-boyfriend had been born with the disease and had known about it the entire time they dated

“I just felt like everything was over,” Somarriba said. “I didn’t want to accept that the man I fell in love with and planned a future with knowingly infected me.”

National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was commemorated March 10. Of the more than 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S., one in four are women, according to Greater Than’s website. Somarriba was 29 years old when she was diagnosed.

“To me, everyday is HIV awareness day,” she said.

In March, close to her one-year anniversary of living with HIV, Somarriba created a Facebook page to share with the public her story of seroconversion. Somarriba said she was motivated by the difficulty in finding an HIV/AIDS support group where she felt comfortable. When she revealed the truth about her infection to a support group for battered women at Kaiser Permanente, they told her that she did not look like someone who had HIV.

“I realized that even though we are in the 21st Century, people still think HIV has a face,” Somarriba said. “HIV can happen to anyone.”

SF State Peer Educators Advocating Campus Health volunteer Alec Santos said part of the stigma some people have with the disease is having a misunderstanding of the distinction between HIV and AIDS.

“Gizzy’s boyfriend may have infected her with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus,” said Santos. “It is a virus that causes the progressive failure of the immune system causing a space for opportunistic viruses to thrive.”

Gladys Somarriba poses for a portrait in front of 2nd and Market in downtown San Francisco. March 17, 2015. (Angelica Ekeke / Xpress)
Gladys Somarriba poses for a portrait in front of 2nd and Market in downtown San Francisco. March 17, 2015. (Angelica Ekeke / Xpress)

The P.E.A.C.H program provides HIV/AIDS education in various ways, ranging from in-depth workshops that are either done in the Student Health Services Conference Room or in classrooms around campus if requested, Santos said.

“In regard to Gizzy and her boyfriend, that is a very sad and unethical situation,” he said. “By the state of California, people are mandated to inform their sexual partner of any infectious diseases that may be carrying. If someone who does have a virus and transmits said virus knowingly, the transmission is considered a misdemeanor.”

Somarriba’s Facebook page inspired film students Tucker Morgan and Diana Chen to create a short documentary about how she was able to cope with the virus by sharing her story online and educating others.

Morgan and Chen, who took a Bay Area Video Coalition documentary and community off-campus class offered by SF State, were given an assignment to profile someone in the community, and Morgan thought “Gizzy’s Story” was one that needed to be shared.

“I really admired Gizzy’s bravery,” Morgan said. “And making the film was kind of a way that I could support her and what she was doing.”

Chen said she was so moved by the film that she entered it in the 54th annual SF state film finals while Morgan uploaded the film to YouTube.

Although Somarriba said she has received a lot of  feedback and support for sharing her story, she has also received criticism, including a response from one woman who accused her of lying about her disease.

“I have tons of people question my story and I don’t understand why people think I would lie,” Somarriba said. “Who would want to be known as the girl with HIV? This isn’t a lifetime movie, this is my life and I’m not getting money from this or book deals. I wish I was lying. I wish it wasn’t true.”

Somarriba said that despite having to deal with a lot of negativity and even receiving a restraining order from her ex-boyfriend after reveling his identity online, the positive feedback has outweighed the bad.

She participates in the AIDS Walk every year and her ultimate goal is to become a guest speaker and share her story with young girls. She said she would like to eventually start her own HIV/AIDS foundation for women.

“I would love for it to be a huge organization,” Somarriba said. “But even it’s just a weekly meeting in my living room where women can gather and support one another, I’ll be happy.”