Thinking positive!

By Laurie Ripper

What’s so serious it can’t be joked about? The Holocaust comes to mind, and maybe the World Trade Center attacks. But what about the dreaded virus that has killed 40 million people and infects 25 million more?
According to Shawn Decker, even AIDS isn’t immune to mockery. He publicly pokes fun at the disease, but before you accuse him of being politically incorrect, you have to hear his story.
Decker was diagnosed with hemophilia at the age of 2 and contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. When he was diagnosed five years later, he was expelled from his Waynesboro middle school for fear he would spread the infection. 
But that’s all in the past, and Decker is definitely living in the moment (with an undetectable viral load, to boot). He now devotes his life to educating others about HIV/AIDS issues through his website  HYPERLINK "" (a playful term he coined to describe people in his “condition”), speaking tours, and articles he writes for the HIV-oriented magazine POZ.
It’s impossible to talk about Decker without mentioning his “girlfriend, lover, soul mate, and chief antagonist” Gwenn Barringer. She’s a former Miss Virginia contestant who, according to Decker, didn’t win because “this is Virginia, and she does AIDS education. More importantly, she doesn’t sing. Gotta sing to win that crown!”
Decker had to learn to love the whole pageant thing, and Barringer still can’t seem to swallow Decker’s passion for professional wrestling. But that’s not all they don’t have in common: he’s infected, she’s not.
They tour the country giving talks at colleges about “A Boy, a Girl, a Virus, and the Relationship That Happened Anyway.” They average about 15 talks a semester with a great response from the audience thanks to their exuberant style– and it probably doesn’t hurt that the couple is extremely easy on the eyes.
A huge synthpop fan (he got to meet his favorite band Depeche Mode back in 1990, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation), Decker is working on his own music, a project he calls Synthetic Division. You can sometimes catch him playing at Tokyo Rose’s Goth Night.
He’s now working on a book tentatively titled My Pet Virus, which he describes as “a compilation of morbidly humorous stories about growing up in rural Virginia, getting diagnosed with HIV and the hilarity that has ensued since.”
This man is so terminally upbeat it’s hard to imagine he has any worries, but he does: he’s currently trying a new AIDS treatment, a seven days on/seven days off plan, to counter the negative effects of his medication. He welcomes the respite, but there’s the danger that his viral load could multiply quickly on his days off.
And then there’s the less expected concern. “How can I be happy about being accepted, when I wonder how my godparents, who are gay and living with AIDS, are being treated?” Decker wonders.
“The stigma I deal with is preferential treatment because I was infected as a child. It may sound stupid that being treated better than others is a problem,” he says, “but it is.”

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