“Am I smiling with my eyes,” Shirley Byrd asked.
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Shirley left a failing marriage with her husband to seek refuge with her family in Oceanside, California. She arrived in California with a flu that she couldn’t shake. Months went by, and she wasn’t getting any better. She had a persistent fever, cough, and aching body. Visit after visit to the doctor, she was finally tested for HIV. When the doctor spoke with her about the results, she remembers, “He started by telling me everything was fine, that my T cell count was up, that my viral load was way down, and that for the most part I was healthy, except …. I was HIV-positive. I immediately felt a shroud of fear, abandonment, and disbelief come over me. The doctor left my exam room for just a moment and immediately I began to think about the end of my life. I felt so alone.”
Shirley contracted HIV from her ex-husband. A common story among women with HIV and AIDS, she felt unable to control her destiny. Her safety was in the hands of her husband, and he didn’t honor that responsibility. In no way does she blame her husband. But, for many women the choice to leave a failing marriage is often easier said than done.
Once in California, her support system began to build her up again. Shirley has three sisters and two living brothers (two brothers have passed). Both of her parents are still living. Most of her family knows about her status, though not everyone. She says, “Anyone who asks me any questions related to my HIV status will get an honest and sincere answer. I use my status as a means to educate my nieces, my family, members of my church. But I have been schooled by people I thought were on my side, too. My church in California, my fellowship, people I trusted with my faith in God, let me down.” When Ms. Byrd came out as an HIV+ woman at her church, the elders began to isolate her. They would no longer let her sing solo in the choir, they no longer allowed her to volunteer on church committees, and if a man showed any interest in her, the elders would blockade her. Although she was among the people meant to love her most, her loneliness persisted.
For Oceanside, Shirley moved to Austin with only one person from her church that she considers her friend. She suspects her friend knows about her status, but she has never spoken with her openly about it. Shirley says, “There is so much stigma with being HIV-positive; so much to think about when dating or creating friendships. I am cautious about whom I reveal my status to, but I reveal it often to help people see that mine, too, is the face of someone with HIV. I use it as an opportunity to educate folks, to help remove some of the stigma.”
Shirley joined the Women Rising Project at AIDS Services of Austin so that she could learn from the experiences that other women with HIV and AIDS face. She wanted a true fellowship of people who empower, encourage, and educate her. She needed a group of people to build her up and support her in reaching her goals. Shirley aims to be a motivational speaker and help young women and girls avoid the challenges she has faced in her life. She is overwhelmingly willing to talk about her story, absorb as much information as she can to maintain her health, and reach out to others to encourage and empower them. Her smile radiates, her voice inspires, and her wealth of knowledge and experience provides hope for others.
Shirley’s is the story of triumph in the midst of pain. Her strength, will, and belief in God have led her to lead others. For that, the team at ASA is eternally grateful. Shirley Byrd, you are smiling with your soul.