Well Beyond HIV

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Sylvia Britt, 51 and HIV-positive for many years, is peer advocate for WORLD, an organization that helps HIV-positive women.

Sylvia Britt was lying alone in a hospital bed, exhausted and ill from a long bout of pneumonia, when she learned she was HIV-positive.

Someone from the hospital — she can’t recall who it was — had let the diagnosis slip and Britt was wholly unprepared. Devastated and in tears, she called her family, who rallied around her.

That was July 2003, and Britt assumed that the diagnosis was a death sentence. But more than a decade later, Britt, 51, is thriving.

She’s part of a new “face” of HIV — the 50-plus crowd who are believed to make up the bulk of HIV infections in the United States now, and who are living longer and healthier lives than anyone ever expected. This week, Britt’s story and those of three other Bay Area residents are on display as part of a traveling art exhibit spotlighting their generation.

“It’s important for people to see that people living with HIV are not dying,” said Britt, who lives in San Leandro and works for WORLD, a patient advocacy group for women with HIV based in Oakland. “We’re living healthy, normal, prolonged lives. I have HIV but HIV doesn’t have me.”

The art exhibit — called “Well Beyond HIV” and funded by Walgreens — will be on display at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center Thursday through Saturday. It’s made up of photos and personal testimonials that were curated by two documentarians who have been tracking the global epidemic for years as part of a project called the Graying of AIDS.

The two project leaders said their motivation for profiling older people living with HIV was to educate the public at large, and also to celebrate a generation of men and women who survived a brutal epidemic.

San Francisco resident Greg Mahusay, 54, decided to join the art project after taking a break from HIV advocacy work. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and managed to stave off symptoms of illness until the first effective treatments came along in the mid-1990s. Around that time, he began speaking out on behalf of HIV and AIDS patients and fighting for better care for them.

But immersing himself in that work, especially when people were still suffering and dying all around him, became overwhelming. Now that he’s in his 50s — an age he never thought he’d see, back when he was diagnosed — he’s getting involved again.

Mahusay joined Positive Pedalers, a group of cyclists with HIV who participate in the AIDS Lifecycle fundraising ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles every year. And he’s “coming out” as HIV-positive all over again.

“What I’m doing is serving the community the best way I can. If I can be a positive public example by talking and sharing my story, as little as that is, it’s a great impact,” Mahusay said. “No one ever  believes that I’ve been HIV- positive for as long as I have. This is a really good opportunity to promote that living with HIV is no longer the death sentence that it is.”

The art project is also a good opportunity for him to embrace living again — something he said he struggled with for a long time during and after the worst of the AIDS epidemic.

“For so many years, I was asking myself why I didn’t die with my friends,” Mahusay said. “Now it’s like, let’s live and see what happens.”

Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: eallday@sfchronicle.com

The art exhibit “Well Beyond HIV” is on display at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center through Saturday. It’s open 4:30-8 p.m. Thursday, 1-3:30 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The exhibit is free. For more information, go to httphttp://wellbeyondhiv.com/

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