Back in 1995, South Bronx-born music promoter Maria Davis was on top of the world -- young, beautiful, happy, and getting her first real taste of success. Her weekly “MAD Wednesdays” hip-hop showcase was a hot industry event, and as its host she even scored a guest spot on Jay-Z’s debut album “Reasonable Doubt.”
But then came the letter that sent her entire world crashing down. When she was forced to take a blood test for a life insurance policy, Davis learned she was HIV positive, and had contracted the virus from her fiance. Three years later, she was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.
That was 14 years ago. Today, despite the odds, Davis is not only alive and well but also on a mission: She is a Making AIDS History Ambassador, and together with the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), she’s spent the last 17 years of her life fighting to stay alive and to help spread awareness within her community and raise money to support research for a cure.
We know all about her public battles, but when ESSENCE.com sat down with Davis in recognition of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (February 7), we asked her how living with AIDS has affected her private life. She opened up about her desire to find a soul mate and the hurdles the disease has created along her path to true love.
ESSENCE.COM: How many friends have you lost along the way because of HIV/AIDS?
MARIA DAVIS: At least 20. It’s just always a reality check for me. [But] nobody can write you off. I lost a friend recently, and when I got to the funeral, I saw this young lady, and she just started crying and wailing. Her good friend looked at her and said, “What the heck is wrong with you?” I asked her, too. She said to me, “They told me you were dead.” I feel good because I hear those stories all the time. People are always telling me that they heard I passed away, but I haven’t. I guess people just assume that I’ve died by now. I’m thinking, what is wrong with these people? Have hope. I do.
ESSENCE: Have you dated a lot since your diagnosis? What’s dating been like for you?
DAVIS: It’s been very fearful. But I love love. Tyler Perry is a big inspiration. I’m always watching his movies and the relationship dynamics that he puts in them. They’re all about a woman being hurt and finding love, and I’m crying and thinking to myself, Man, I want to be in love too. I’m not having a relationship with anybody unless I know their status. You can be re-infected. Another part of it is the person I’m sleeping with could have a different strain of the virus than I do. So whereas your strain is manageable, you could get another strain and it could take you out of here. The only way you can know for sure is to go and get tested together. That’s for anyone, in any kind of relationship. Whether you’re jumping the broom, just dating, whatever – before you sleep with someone, you should know him or her in and out. You have husbands and wives who have given each other HIV.
ESSENCE: Is making your status known right away most important to you when you’re dating someone new?
DAVIS: Absolutely! I’m a spokesperson. The only way you really don’t know I have HIV is if you haven’t read or seen anything about me. But I make it clear that I am living with AIDS. Actually, when I’m in a relationship, I’m more afraid of an individual than they are of me, trust me. They know what I have coming into the relationship, but I don’t know what they have. Are you telling the truth? Are you being honest? Are you telling me one thing, but it could be another thing? If so, then my life is in jeopardy all over again.
ESSENCE: Do you feel it’s been harder to find love because of your diagnosis or your fears?
DAVIS: Let’s be for real: It’s because of my diagnosis. I’ve had guys tell me I’m fine, or they try to talk to me. Then when I tell them that I’m living with AIDS they kind of back off. I do have one friend I’ve been in and out of a relationship with. But his head isn’t ready yet.
ESSENCE: Do you encourage young women to use protection or hold off on sex until marriage instead?
DAVIS: All of that. I’ve given out thousands and thousands and thousands of condoms. But what does a condom mean if a person doesn’t care about himself or herself? My goal is for the young men and women to figure it out mentally. It’s an inner thing, not an outer thing. A condom is an outer thing, that’s a barrier. The inner barrier gives more power than the outer. If they can just stop for one second and say to themselves, "Hey, this is not worth it"... Condoms can break, but who are you having sex with? Are they worthy of you? Do they deserve your time? You are a pearl. You are a gift from God. You can’t throw your gifts away to people who are not deserving of you. Everybody has issues. He could be a great person, but are his intentions great? He might not have found his greatness yet, but you have to find your greatness in you. Once you find it, other people see that greatness, and they’re not going to come to you with crap.
ESSENCE: What advice would you offer to women who are recently diagnosed and feel their chances at finding true love are over?
DAVIS: I’m going to be honest. Of course your dating life is going to change. Accept it. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t find love, or you won’t find anyone. Just accept the changes that come with any illness. Once you accept and embrace that change, you open yourself up for so many other things. If you’re in denial and you try to go against it, then you get locked into bad behaviors. Then you’re trying to find yourself within people that don’t understand you, because you don’t understand yourself. Will I ever be in a relationship again? I pray so, and I would love to. But if it never happens again, that’s okay too. A relationship with a man doesn’t identify who I am. I’m still lovable.
The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) is one of the world’s leading nonprofits dedicated to AIDS research and ending the AIDS epidemic. Since 1985, amfAR has invested more than $340 million in its programs and helped catalyze the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS. To get more facts about how to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS your community, visit the Making Aids History official site or amfAR’s website now.