Attorney Johnson was diagnosed with HIV after losing her husband to an illness she says doctors insisted was anything other than AIDS.
“Because we were a heterosexual couple, it never occurred to [our doctors] that we might have HIV,” she says. “They kept telling us it was anything else but that: the measles, mononucleosis, just all kinds of things other than but HIV.”
But when her husband was diagnosed with PCP pneumonia, she says: “I was told by a female intern that I needed to get tested. I found out first, told him. So it was never any secret between he and I.”
“Unfortunately, he passed away in 1994.”
Vanessa says she never hid her status from her family. “I told my family right away, because it was another secret I did not want to keep.”
A mother of an adult son, Vanessa is the co-owner of the Washington, D.C., based Ribbon Consultant Group, which provides consulting and technical assistance services to organizations and individuals representing and serving people with chronic health conditions.
Prior to forming Ribbon, Vanessa worked an advocate and community leader for people living with HIV and social justice issues. She has dedicated 15 years specifically to developing and providing capacity building assistance in the area of HIV, with a special emphasis on women living with the virus.
She is a co-founder and board member for the Positive Women’s Network-USA, the National Black Women’s HIV/AIDS Network and the National Women and AIDS Collective. She is also a board member of the National Working Positive Coalition.
She says living a healthy life has meant controlling her weight. Some myths in the black community suggested having more weight might protect people from HIV, given the images of gaunt AIDS victims that proliferated in the early 1980s.
In recognition of her many years of advocacy, Vanessa was recognized by the HIV community and featured as an Unsung Hero in the December 2013 Issue of POZ Magazine. She also was recognized by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009 for her work in prevention. She received the Gloria Award (Ms. Foundation) in 2007, the NYS Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Award in 2004, and the Paul G. Hearne/Association of People with Disabilities Award in 1999.