Christopher Cunningham. Photos: Myles Loftin

How It Feels to Live With AIDS for 30 Years

Three decades ago, Christopher Cunningham was diagnosed with AIDS—yet he’s still here to share his story

Aliya S. King
LEVEL
Published in
13 min readFeb 7, 2020

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Update 6/7/22: Level has a new home. You can read this article and other new articles by visiting LEVELMAN.com.

The first time I met Chris, he told me he had AIDS. And I laughed out loud.

Let me explain.

We were at a brunch last year hosted by a notable Twitter/media personality. Every so often, she gathers a group of folks from various industries for food and drinks and some low-pressure networking. Not my thing, usually, but I was there as my boyfriend’s plus-one — well, one of his plus-two. He also invited his brother Chris so we could meet. Except Chris was late.

Eventually, I saw him step in, dapper and assured. He surveyed the room and then sat across from me at the table — but not without giving me the up-and-down outfit check. (I passed, I guess.) We discussed the menu, agreed on the oxtail hash, and then continued reading the room and making small talk. It was a fish-out-of-water sort of solidarity: The room skewed millennial, and everyone looked like social media stars with massively successful podcasts we’d never heard of, so we used each other as lifelines.

Somewhere between mimosas two and three, the notable Twitter/media personality urged a round of introductions — dressed up in the question “What’s been your biggest flex of 2019?” As the tidal wave of personal accomplishments rolled around the room, Chris and I made eye contact with a silent, shared question: What are you going to say? Not that we haven’t been successful in our lives, but these folks were saying things like, “I just got my second patent!” (Cue golf claps and woo-hoos.) “My Grammy shelf got a little more crowded!” (Cue more golf claps and woo-hoos.)

Chris leaned over to me.

“You know what I got?” he stage-whispered.

I shake my head.

“I got AIDS.

His timing and delivery, that full-on eye-rolling sarcasm dripped in crushing reality, made me choke-laugh on my drink.

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Aliya S. King
LEVEL
Writer for

Aliya S. King is an author, freelance writer and editor.