Black History is NOW: Tony Merritt – The Atlanta Voice

Black History is NOW: Tony Merritt – The Atlanta Voice

Atlanta resident Tony Merritt, 77, has been living with HIV for almost 40 years and uses his voice as a member of the Black LGBTQ+ community to be fearless and encourage others to get tested and know their status. Photo by Isaiah Singleton/The Atlanta Voice

Tony Merritt, 77, has been living with HIV for more than three decades and is using his voice as a member of Atlanta’s Black LGBTQ+ community to be fearless and encourage others to get tested and learn their status.  

Working with the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7, Merritt partnered with AvitaCare Atlanta on an HIV and STI testing event called “Be Fearless. Get Tested.” at its clinic from Feb. 5-11 to help all Atlantans overcome the stigma and fear associated with HIV and STI testing.  

Additionally, Merritt has been a patient at AvitaCare Atlanta for over 25 years.  

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16 percent of Georgians with HIV are unaware of their status, which means they aren’t getting the HIV care they need.  

In Atlanta, where new HIV diagnoses rank among the highest in major U.S. cities, there is an increased likelihood that Black men and women will be living with an HIV diagnosis over white men and women, respectively.  

34 years ago… 

34 years ago, Merritt received a call that changed his life forever.  

“My mother had polyps and so we all had to get tested,” he said. “While I was at the doctor’s office, the doctor asked me if I would like to be tested for AIDS and I said yeah, so he ran the test, and about a week or so later, he called to tell me to come in and that’s when he informed me the test came back positive and he was going to recommend an infectious disease specialist I should see to start my care. Within that same week, I got a letter from the American Red Cross that my lab results showed, I was positive. I wanted to keep that letter because it was sort of a notification.” 

Merritt said his T-cell count stayed above 500, and while he felt good about it, that feeling didn’t last long. “I was diagnosed as HIV positive, but based on the standards then, I had full-blown AIDS. Looking back, that was one of the factors that encouraged me to be confident in doing this right now.” 

There are many memories during that time that stand out in Merritt’s mind. One of the most challenging situations he had to deal with was losing a childhood friend.  

“We grew up together in a community on the west side in a small church and became very good friends,” Merritt recalled. “He contracted AIDS and one of his college classmates and I were his caregiver because he couldn’t work. We moved into this facility for people who were dying of AIDS and I was one of his caregivers. During the week, his classmates cared for him, and I would care for him on the weekends.” 

Merritt recalled one of the last times he saw his friend alive. “I walked into the apartment, and I saw him. He looked like someone that was dying and someone I had seen in Jerusalem House,” he said. “That was really hard, especially when you have known this person all your life. Until that point, he had been okay, but he had deteriorated.” 

What it takes to be an advocate 

Merritt said he had always wanted to be an advocate, and this opportunity gave him the chance. He also said he wanted to put a face to stigma and show what a person living with HIV looks like when you’re on the medication consistently.  

“A part of this goes back to the point where several years ago, I was sitting in a breakout session for one of the agencies dealing with HIV/AIDS and they mentioned the numbers of young black males in the city of Atlanta that are HIV positive and more than likely not getting care. Adhere to the medication and you will live a relatively healthy life and so that was my idea of becoming an advocate,” he said.  

Merritt said a good friend of his encouraged him to take a step forward.  

“My friend told me if this was something I really believed in, it’ll be easier for me to do,” he said. “So, when I decided to do it, it was easier than I thought it was going to be because back in the day, a lot of it was shame, denial, and getting back to what I accepted, the fact that this was something that I wanted to do in terms of who I was.” 

Merritt said the challenge of being an advocate and telling his story was sharing his HIV status with his family, but his son in particular.  

“When I agreed to share my story, I told them I would do it, but I must talk to my son first because he knows I’m gay, but he didn’t know I’m HIV positive. So, I gave him a call and told him I wanted to share some information with him, not for his approval but letting him know this is something I’m going to do this year,” he said. 

Additionally, Merritt said this wasn’t the first time he was given an opportunity to be an advocate.  

“When I agreed to be an advocate for this program, it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. I thought I was going to be questioned, condemned, and it wasn’t there,” he said. Certain things like going to conferences and being around like-minded people helped Merritt gain his level of comfort.  

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was Feb. 7, Merritt partnered with AvitaCare Atlanta on an HIV and STI testing event called “Be Fearless. Get Tested.” Photo by Isaiah Singleton/The Atlanta Voice

Living with HIV: Modern Times 

The conversation and resources surrounding HIV/AIDS have changed tremendously in the last 34 years. With open conversations and medicine like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a positive diagnosis is no longer felt like a death sentence. 

Merritt said having more access to medication and resources makes all the difference in the world. 

“When I was diagnosed, nothing was available. The only available medicine was doing more harm than good, so you wanted to stay away from that. Now they have something that saves your life, and if you adhere to the medication, you can have a relatively long healthy life,” he said.  

The problem, however, he said is the stigma that comes with having HIV/AIDS. “It’s still here alive and well,” he said. “You would think it would be less knowing how effective these drugs are, but that stigma is major, and I can understand because I never shared my status with my family.”

 As far as what Merritt wants the Black LGBTQ+ community to get out of this whole initiative is an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.  

“There are healthcare processes, procedures, drugs, and resources to help people live a healthy life and I am an example of that,” he said. “I can say I have been living with HIV for 34 years and if you take the medication regularly, you can too.”

Merritt said one of the areas that have changed since he was diagnosed 34 years ago is people are more comfortable in sharing their statuses. He too is comfortable and wants to share his personal journey and perspective on the importance of testing in a community disproportionately affected by HIV. In sharing his experience, he hopes to humanize the disease and show people that even if you test positive, adhering to HIV treatment can help you live a healthy life.  

The “Be Fearless. Get Tested.” The HIV and STI testing event at AvitaCare Atlanta is offering confidential HIV and STI testing on February 5-11. Walk-in testing and appointments are available at avitacareatlanta.com/befearless or by calling (404) 231-4431. 

HIV and STI testing is available on a walk-in basis, February 5-9 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and February 10-11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  

Testing can also be scheduled by visiting avitacareatlanta.com/befearless or calling (404) 231-4431. Results are confidential, and expert healthcare providers will offer personalized follow-up care. 

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