He looked strong and handsome and healthy, and he knocked Belinda Maxwell head over heels.
"He looked like he walked off the cover of GQ magazine," she said. "This brother was 6-foot-5, caramel-complected, beautiful. He looked nice, dressed nice, and I just fell for him."
But his good looks concealed a secret. The man Maxwell was in love with had AIDS. Now Maxwell of Clearwater has learned that she has HIV, along with a harsh lesson: Black women have staggeringly high rates of HIV and AIDS. In Florida, they are 17 times as likely to live with HIV or AIDS than are white women.
That's why the state will sponsor its first-ever conference aimed at lowering the rate of HIV infection among African-American women. Called "S.O.S.: Sistas Organizing to Survive," the conference in Orlando will tackle the grim reality that AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women ages 25 to 44.
"We want to make the point that black women are in crisis and need help," said Ronald Henderson, statewide minority AIDS coordinator with the Florida Department of Health. "We want to educate women so they can go back and educate women in their communities."
More than 600 women plan to attend the three-day conference, which starts Friday. One goal will be to push them to promise to get tested for HIV, then return home and persuade other women to get tested. They'll have a slogan, "ask me about the pledge," to encourage conversation. The state hopes the conference will help boost HIV testing for black women by 20,000 this year.
The people most at risk for HIV infection are still gay men. Among Florida residents with HIV, 70 percent are men and 71 percent of them are gay.
Overall, in Tampa Bay and across the state, health officials have reported a steep rise this year in HIV infection rates. But they believe most, if not all, of that is because of a change in reporting rules, and the actual increase is small. However, Tampa Bay remains a top spot for HIV and AIDS, along with Miami and other urban areas.
But Florida, which ranks No. 2 among states for AIDS cases, also has more black women with the disease. In Florida, 54 percent of people with AIDS are black, and nearly a third are women.
AIDS advocates say there are several reasons for the disparity, including poverty and lack of access to health care and health counseling.
Another is simple math. Once a sexually transmitted disease is found in a group, it is more likely to spread within that group.
Others cite less-quantifiable links. To Danielle Kahl, director of the Tampa Bay AIDS Network, it's no coincidence that black women have less power than others in society.
"It's very difficult to ask anything for people who don't have power," Kahl said. "They're not taught or empowered to negotiate how to not have sex or how to have safe sex."
The continuing perception that AIDS is a shameful, gay disease hurts prevention efforts among black women, said Ann Sherman-White, prevention and testing coordinator for the AIDS Service Association of Pinellas, or ASAP.
"You've got to think that in the past, the HIV epidemic has been associated with the gay white male," she said. "Plus it's a sexually transmitted disease. So it's a topic that's been basically taboo in the African-American community."
In a way, HIV prevention has been a victim of medical advances. Drugs now keep people healthier longer, but women may envision those with HIV as being visibly ill, said Andrew Maldonado, a prevention specialist with the AIDS network.
"We ask them, 'What would lead you to have unprotected sex?' " he said. " 'Well, he's not skinny, he's not ashy-looking, he doesn't look sick.' "
That's what happened to Maxwell. The man she met eight years ago didn't look sick. They dated for months before she agreed to unprotected sex.
"I thought you could look at someone and tell, like they would look like the walking dead," she said.
She didn't know what was wrong when she began to get body aches and night sweats. Her throat hurt, and a fever wouldn't go away. Finally, she went to a hospital. When she got the positive test, she called him.
"The first thing he said was, 'What's wrong? They told you you have AIDS?' "
She hasn't spoken to him since. She's heard he moved back to New York, and that before she met him, he was an IV drug user who shared needles.
But that knowledge didn't help Maxwell when she came home to her four children. The oldest was just 11, the youngest a toddler, and she was too weak to get out of bed. Her son asked if she was going to die.
She sat her children down. Mommy has HIV, she said. But Mommy is going to see you grow up.
All she had then was determination and prayer.
Now she has more. She has become vigilant about her health, taking four pills a day. She doesn't smoke or drink or let herself get too stressed. She gets enough sleep. And she preaches. Maxwell has become a client advocate and testing counselor for ASAP.
She is on the front lines of efforts to reach out to churches and sororities and community groups, to make it okay to talk about safe sex and prevention and HIV testing.
"Having people like Belinda, beautiful black women saying 'I'm positive and it's okay,' that breaks down barriers," Sherman-White said. "That lets other black men and women know it's okay to say, 'I'm positive.' It's like years ago, when people where so secretive about having cancer. That's where HIV has to get, to that level of comfort."
So Maxwell tells women who are sick not to give up. She tells women who are well to get tested, to stand up for themselves. She tells them how it happened to her.
"I'm not afraid of who I am," she says. "I have HIV. HIV does not have me."
Lisa Greene can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.