Pat Gordon’s home is decorated with an eclectic mix of unusual furniture, including a leopard-print Bombay chest and a row of welding masks. The workspace where he paints is visible immediately upon entering, and the walls are covered with his paintings. With the midafternoon light filling the room, he sits in a chair with Rochester, one of his two Norwich terriers, on his lap and talks about one of the darkest times of his life: being diagnosed with HIV.
[pullquote]The younger generations are afraid to have the test, because even going to get the test is a stigma,”[/pullquote]“I ran to New York,” he says. “I really thought I’d be dead pretty quickly.”
It was a diagnosis Gordon shared with few people for 14 years. At Tulsa CARES’ Red Ribbon Gala in February, he publicly disclosed he was HIV positive for the first time. Although he says he thought taking the step was risky, he wanted to attempt to remove some of the stigma that is attached to the diagnosis.
Despite increased awareness of HIV/AIDS, people still avoid being tested for the disease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, around 12.8 percent of the 1.2 million people in the United States who are HIV positive are not aware they are living with HIV.
Although new treatments mean it is possible for people to live with HIV, not knowing means those who need the medications are not receiving them.
“The younger generations are afraid to have the test, because even going to get the test is a stigma,” Gordon says. “Not the outcome of your test, but the test itself.”
Gordon points out people publicly disclosing they are HIV/AIDS positive is relatively rare, saying that in the past 25 years, there were very few public disclosures between Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 and Charlie Sheen’s disclosure last year.
“But between that, there’s nobody,” he says. “Does that not tell you the kind of stigma, fear and internal hatred that comes with this diagnosis? It comes with a moral judgment.”
Gordon says he believes younger generations may not take HIV as seriously because they didn’t see the effects it had on people in his generation before the disease could be managed. Memories of his friends in hospice are still deeply engrained in his brain.
When Gordon first became active in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the diagnosis was considered a death sentence. As someone who saw his friends dying of AIDS, Gordon worked with other people, including Tulsa interior designer Charles Faudree, to raise money for those who didn’t have resources and needed help. Gordon, Faudree and others worked with Catholic Charities to help build St. Joseph’s Residence, with Catholic Charities serving as the major sponsor for financing.
Gordon says people did everything they could to give their residents solace.
“They came in and made these hospice rooms breathtakingly beautiful,” he says. “So for the people who passed through St. Joseph’s on their way to wherever, they had a beautiful room to live in until the day they died. They were beautiful rooms. Hospital beds that had been dressed up to be beautiful. And we couldn’t wait to close it.
“It’s now closed. That’s the most important thing. It’s now closed because of the progress that has been made in the fight against AIDS and HIV. For most people, the death process has been slowed back down. No longer is it imminent if you take your meds.”
The stigma still remains with HIV, though, and that stigma influenced Gordan when he was diagnosed. He wasn’t comfortable with the information being publicly disclosed, but invited 10 of his best friends to breakfast to share the results. He told them them the information wouldn’t stay private in Tulsa.
He recounts different incidents that happened after he was diagnosed, including walking through a restaurant and hearing a stranger recognize him.
“I heard somebody say my name,” he says. “And then I heard, ‘And he has AIDS.’”
Six months later after learning he was HIV positive, he moved to New York. It was a place he’d wanted to live since he was a child. If he was going to die, Gordon says, he wanted to die in New York.
[pullquote]Charles Faudree and I were both very lucky in that we were given social acceptance at a time where being gay in America was not socially accepted.”[/pullquote]“At that time, the thing I remember from my training is, once diagnosed in this region of the country, death was likely to follow in 12 months,” he says. “Because they waited so long to get tested. I did too. It was my fault. And I just assumed it would be applicable to me 10 years after. And it’s obviously not true. I’m glad.”
Around three years ago, Gordon came back to Tulsa. He says his decision was influenced by many things, including the cost of living in New York, but one of the main reasons he moved back was that he missed his friends.
Although he hopes his disclosure will help raise awareness on the necessity of HIV tests, it took several personal incidents before he felt ready to take that step. One was the decision to showcase some of his paintings linked to helping people with HIV and his own diagnosis.
Gordon also suffered from a near-death experience last year where he nearly bled to death.
“I was lucky I didn’t die,” he says. “But it also left me with the sensation internally that there was a reason I didn’t. There is no reason I should have made it, but I did. And when I came out of it, I thought, ‘OK, you’ve really been given a second opportunity.’”
Gordon is taking advantage of that second opportunity, using it to help educate people and, he hopes, provide some encouragement for people to get tested and support for those who are HIV positive.
It’s also way to give back to a community that accepted him at a time when acceptance wasn’t always common.
“Charles Faudree and I were both very lucky in that we were given social acceptance at a time where being gay in America was not socially accepted,” he says. “I feel very grateful for that, and I want to be able to return that if I can.”
The disclosure also impacted Gordon, who said he feels like a weight has finally been lifted from him.
“Oh, I feel like I could almost just dance,” he says. “I’m telling you, I feel like I used to feel before this happened. I used to think I was pretty funny, nice, an easy-going guy, with a poignant sense of humor, and I hadn’t felt that way for 14 years.”