Kevin Stalter: How I Learned to Thrive with HIV


EDITOR’S NOTE: With World AIDS Day a week away, Kevin Stalter shares his journey from fear and desperation to confidence and success as a gay man with HIV. Stalter is president and CEO of The Thrive Tribe Foundation whose “Brotherhood,” a social and support group, consists of over 2,000 local men with HIV. The Foundation also  offers groups for the Brotherhood’s friends and families.

I was 19 going on 20 and had just moved from a small Michigan farm town to Los Angeles when I discovered that I was HIV positive. It was 1989 and a scary time to contract the disease The Red Cross nurse who broke the news summed up my future in one sentence, “You probably have a good 10 to 11 years ahead of you.”

The Thrive Tribe, HIV, Kevin Stalter
Kevin Stalter, president and CEO of The Thrive Tribe Foundation

I now have been HIV positive for over 25 years. I will never forget that turning point in my life. Somehow I find myself today shaped by the very thing that was supposed to kill me.

At first it did not really sink in what had happened to me. I took the necessary steps – saw my doctor, ate better food, took some vitamins, cried a little and prayed a lot. My future was planned in my head, I was working for a non-profit and struggling in L.A. but I was determined to go back to school for a degree in urban planning and political science. Yes, I wanted to be a politician or at least run a big city. I was gay so POTUS was out – funny how far we have come since then! I credit the AIDS crisis for the incredible acceptance gay people have attained in a very short time. AIDS forced us to organize politically and use the money of our affluent, successful gay brethren to fight for our lives and the lives of those we loved.

I wasn’t able to participate in that part of the fight. I was busy trying to save myself and focus on those 10 to 11 years. My health was good for the first few years. A stomach virus almost took me down in 1995m but I worked through it. Over time, my doctor and I decided I should take a break from working in retail and go on disability. It was 1998, and I wanted to enjoy the last couple years. The drugs were only mildly effective for me. Adherence is tough when you have to take 12 pills three times a day, some with food, some without and one that had to be refrigerated.

One month after going on disability I was called home. My mother was terminally ill. The saddest part about HIV for me was the possibility I would die before my mother. She worshiped me, and I worshiped her. Mom had trouble accepting the fact that I was gay. I couldn’t bear the thought of having her know I could die. It would have crushed her. My status allowed me to spend most of the last three months of her life with her and another month with my dad and eight siblings. I was the only one she would talk to about her fear of dying. She must have known I was at peace with my own mortality. It was honestly one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.


And now here I am, alive and thriving 25 years later. Today, I not only am still alive, but I’m healthy and thriving with HIV. After years of hiding and shame, I’m now blessed to work as the president and executive director of The Thrive Tribe Foundation. My journey has taken me from a state of fear and survival to one of empowerment and renewal.I have lived and am living a wonderfully fun life. My work with the Thrive Tribe has been a blessing at this stage in my life. Our members share a common goal – to end the stigma of this disease and be the last generation of HIV positive men. We have a vision for the world where you, regardless of status, are accepted and free to Love Who You Love.TM This is now my personal life’s work and mission. It’s a long way from near death experiences and avoiding the disease as much as possible.

This affliction has made me a strong and compassionate man. I am the better for it.


The Thrive Tribe is celebrating the creation of its non-profit foundation with a series of events from Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day) to 7. The celebration is called “Geronimo Week.” Kevin Stalter says that name was chosen because “Geronimo” is “an ancient call from a tribal leader to take a leap of faith or jump into a new era, and that is exactly what we are doing with HIV…” The events include a screening of “The Normal Heart” on World AIDS Day, an event on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a visit to a Hollywood costume exhibit, a bowling night, and a canyon hike. The finale of the week will be a party at the historic Hollywood Athletic Club. Tickets can be purchased online, with a discount available through Nov. 25. The entry price includes open bar, food and entertainment.

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