Instead of succumbing to HIV, these gay men forged ahead to inspire others

Chris Caputo

Chris Caputo is a young entrepreneur with a different look at HIV/AIDS.

“So much has changed since those first years,” Caputo said. “In my generation, you don’t have a lot of people dying. I think more people are aware of HIV. We certainly are here in Fort Lauderdale.”

Caputo, 32, is a software and web developer who is very much involved in the South Florida community. He recently served as a team captain for the Smart Ride, a cycling ride from Miami to Key West which raises money for a host of HIV related charities. Caputo raised $8,769 representing the Pride Center, where he serves as secretary on its board of directors.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Caputo first came to South Florida as a 20-year-old and immediately bought a tanning salon. He has been HIV Positive for two years and is involved in a group called Impulse, affiliated with AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which brings together gay men under the age of 40 to promote basic awareness, testing and safer sex.

Caputo leads an active lifestyle and enjoys swimming, running, cycling and traveling. World AIDS Day just so happens to fall on his birthday as well.

“It is important to remember those lost and also how far we have come in the fight,” he said.

Edward Sparan

Edward Sparan took a decade’s worth of HIV medication and made a memorial.

Sparan, an actor/writer/director who lives in Fort Lauderdale, created a life size AIDS red ribbon out of his empty bottles of medication. The ribbon is 10 feet tall, weighs 50 pounds and contains 417 bottles of medicine – medicine Sparan has taken during his 12 years of being HIV Positive.

“I have a hard time throwing things away so I took four bags of these bottles out of my closet, dumped them on the bed and got the idea for this,” said Sparan, who was living with an artist at the time and was admittedly influenced.

The ribbon will be on display inside the new World AIDS Museum and Educational Center, scheduled to open in early 2014 in Wilton Manors. Sparan, 50, has been involved in many theater projects in New York and San Francisco, but his work in making the museum a reality has been quite fulfilling.

“People have embraced this so much,” he said. “We really need this to memorialize the 26 million people who have died from AIDS.”

Hugh Beswick

Hugh Beswick is on a mission.

Given a second chance after having his life shattered by AIDS, Beswick is focused on opening the World AIDS Museum in Wilton Manors. He currently serves as the museum’s chairman of the board and is busy planning for next year’s grand opening.

“Part of the story with this museum is showing why this can’t happen again,” said Beswick, citing statistics showing 25 million people worldwide have died from the disease since it was first recorded in the early 1980s.

Diagnosed with AIDS in 2003, Beswick was near death, wheelchair bound and sick for years. He has since made a dramatic recovery and lives a healthy lifestyle in South Florida. The 61-year-old Pittsburgh native said his brush with death moved him to educate the masses about HIV/AIDS. The museum, scheduled to open in late February inside Wilton Station, is the perfect vehicle to fight stigma.

“I am very fortunate to have survived,” Beswick said. “I certainly have a new outlook on life and I’m going to do something with it.”

Lorenzo Robertson

Lorenzo Robertson is a successful performing artist, writer and activist who sees World AIDS Day as a time for education.

“This is a day to educate people about HIV/AIDS so they can protect themselves and get tested,” he said.

Robertson, 51, grew up in the small town of Pahokee, Fla. and he incorporates much of his upbringing in his one man show, “me, myself and i.” The show, Robertson says, deals with sexuality, HIV/AIDS and protection. Getting people to talk about these issues is a big part of Robertson’s activism. He currently hosts a “Couples Speak” program on Monday nights at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors and is the co-founder of “Brothaspeak,” a program for men of color in same-sex relationships.

For Robertson, HIV Positive for 16 years, World AIDS Day is also a time to pause and reflect.

“It’s remembering those who lost their struggle,” he said. “And remembering those who are living with the virus and those who are thriving with the virus.”

Robertson lives in Palm Beach County where he works closely with the Health Department’s Minority AIDS Outreach program.

Michael Emanuel Rajner

Michael Emanuel Rajner never stops working, pushing, advocating.

In simplest terms, Rajner is an activist, although there is much more to his story.

“I struggle with it,” Rajner said when describing his role. “As an activist, I don’t think you are ever satisfied or happy because there is always something next.”

What’s next for Rajner is a spot on the United States PLHIV (People Living With HIV) Caucus, a national strategy network of individuals, groups and organizations brought together to fight the disease. It’s a familiar fight for Rajner, first diagnosed HIV Positive in 1995 when he was living in New York. Now 43 and a resident of Wilton Manors, Fla., Rajner has become a leading human rights activist in South Florida, recently organizing the state’s first ever LGBT rights town hall with several elected state and local officials on hand.

“There’s so much work to be done,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard to pause and appreciate the victories because my phone rings quite a bit with people needing linkage.”

Terry DeCarlo

As Development Director at Broward House, Terry DeCarlo is on the front line in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“You don’t want this disease,” says DeCarlo. “You should protect yourself. It’s a piece of latex that takes three and half seconds to put on and it will save your life.”?With 15 locations in Fort Lauderdale, Broward House serves 6,000 people making it the largest HIV organization in the county. It provides a wide range of resources from housing to substance abuse treatment.

“We never turn anyone away,” said DeCarlo.

A native of NewYork, DeCarlo, 51, has lived in South Florida for 27 years. He has been HIV Positive for 19 years.

“World AIDS Day is a day for all of us to reflect and remember those we have lost,” he said. “I’ve lost countless friends to this disease. What we really need is an AIDS Awareness Month to put in the forefront of people’s minds that this disease is still killing people.”