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Local activist talks about living with HIV at event
Local activist, HIV peer counselor and case manager Tom Salyer is shown above with the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Danville. Salyer was chosen to speak at a presentation of the quilt Saturday. The quilt, composed of about 48,000 3-by-6-foot memorial panels, is too large to be ehibited in its entirety. (Contributed photo)
Monday, January 7, 2013
By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer
Tom Salyer has spent nearly 10 years working as an advocate for those with HIV and AIDS.
On Saturday, he reached a new height in his advocacy career when he spoke at a Danville presentation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
According to aidsquilt.org, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was started in 1985 by San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones. Though it started small, the quilt is currently made up of 48,000 3-by-6-foot memorial panels, most of them commemorating the life of someone who died of complications from AIDS.
Today, the quilt takes up 1.3 million square feet and contains more than 94,000 names. Because of its vast size, only portions of it are displayed at a time.
One part is on display at the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History and will remain there through the end of the month. Salyer was invited to speak at Saturday’s opening presentation by friend Carol Napier.
Salyer, 51, met Napier while he was working as a case manager with Piedmont Access to Health Services Inc. Community HIV/AIDS Assistance Program, known as PATHS CHAAP. PATHS CHAAP partnered with the Danville Museum for the AIDS quilt presentation.
“Here in Martinsville, I’ve worked as an HIV/AIDS advocate,” Salyer said. “Once a year at Patrick Henry Community College, I’ve put together a World AIDS Day event. I invited (Napier) one year and she attended and was impressed. We sort of formed a friendship at that point.”
Napier, who is manager of PATHS CHAAP, emailed Salyer asking him to speak at the event.
“She mentioned the fact that my ‘journey has not always been smooth, but I have been resilient in the cause,’” Salyer said.
Salyer was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2001.
“This last year, it’s been rough,” Salyer said. “Last September and October, because of my medications, I became ill and I was in the hospital. Right after that, I became quite depressed. It’s been a rough year. But as you can see, I’m healthy again. I had to change medications. It’s just part of being HIV-positive. Those things happen.”
Because of his diagnosis, Salyer has been in the position of “coming out of the closet” not once, but twice. He came out as gay in 1981, and came out as HIV-positive in 2004.
After that, he started a support group in Henry County and Martinsville for others who were HIV-positive.
Long before his diagnosis, however, Salyer’s life was impacted by the disease.
In the early 1980s, he said, “You started hearing about this disease. At that time, they were calling it a ‘gay cancer.’ You heard all these horrible things; it was very frightening. Just a few years later, I remember in my community, people I knew, people I would see, they were no longer there. They just disappeared.”
“Before I was infected,” he added, “I was affected.”
In the 1990s, one of Salyer’s closest childhood friends died of AIDS, and other friends followed.
“I’ve lost count of the people that I knew who have perished from this disease,” he said.
While living in Washington D.C. in the 1990s, his roommate and friend was ill with complications from AIDS. The friend asked Salyer to join him on a visit to the National Mall.
He wanted to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. As it turns out, that year — 1996 — was the last time the quilt was displayed in its entirety, as it since has grown too massive.
According to Salyer, seeing the quilt was a profound experience.
“Being able to do that with someone that I cared about and that I knew was going to be leaving soon ... it was a powerful day,” he said, “something I’ll never forget.”
Although AIDS education is improving, Salyer said there’s still a stigma attached to those who are HIV-positive, particularly outside of metropolitan areas.
“I experience it from people that I know,” he said. “For instance, if someone’s having a function or a party, I have friends who will say, ‘Don’t talk about the HIV. I don’t want you to bring up AIDS.’ I don’t know if they realize how rude that is ... I don’t mention (his illness) unless someone else mentions it. Who wants to think about their illness?”
Most of the time, however, he is impressed by how open and accepting people are, and how they want to learn from him about HIV and AIDS.
“I thought that people would be threatening me and throwing things at my car as I drove down the street,” Salyer said, “but nothing bad has happened to me because of disclosing my stigma.”
Now that his medication has been adjusted and he’s healthy again, Salyer is glad to be getting back into AIDS advocacy. He was honored to speak at Saturday’s event.
“It sort of got me re-energized,” he said. “I’m happy to get back into the swing of things.”