After the first episode of his Netflix show “Say I Do” aired, Chef Gabriele Bertaccini received a letter that has stuck with him.
The letter was from a 19-year-old viewer in the Philippines who, while watching the show, burst into tears. “I tested positive for HIV two weeks ago. I am sitting here with my mom, and I started crying because I don’t have the courage to tell her. I hope one day I will,” the fan wrote.
The letter reaffirmed Chef Gabe’s goal of being forthcoming about his HIV status, both in the show and in other aspects of his life. He hopes to inspire others with HIV to own their diagnosis as part of their life story and overcome the stigma surrounding the virus.
“I feel a hundred percent confident the stigma is still attached to the idea of what HIV and AIDS were in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It prevents us from speaking our truth and speaking vulnerably and openly about this disease,” Chef Gabe said.
Though Chef Gabe didn’t plan to reveal this health detail on the show, he felt compelled to do so when the groom-to-be in the episode, Marcus, shared that he was living with diabetes.
Though he and Marcus were different people, he said, “that’s exactly where we connected: on our struggles and our fears.”
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes the disease AIDS and dismantles the immune system, preventing the body from fighting off life-threatening infections. However, thanks to advances in treatment, people with HIV can lead relatively normal, healthy lives, including having sex without transmitting the virus to a partner.
While medical professionals are aware of these truths, many of those in the HIV community may not be. And stigma can prevent people from getting tested, leading to health risks and emotionally closing up about a positive diagnosis.
In speaking up, Chef Gabe hopes to welcome others to the conversation and own their diagnosis as part of who they are, without feeling judgment or shame.
“I think that [the scene on ‘Say I Do’] was a very important and profound moment that will hopefully inspire people to connect with others around them and whom they love and feel safe with, and to open up about their stories so that others can do the same,” he said.
Despite his confidence and openness now, Chef Gabe explained he went through the typical emotional stages everyone goes through following a serious medical diagnosis: denial, fear, and acceptance. He was able to come to terms with this new fact of his life, and not let it impede his personal or professional aspirations, thanks to educating himself about HIV and having a supportive and tight-knit group of friends.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself after his diagnosis, he asked himself: “How can I make this mine and part of my own story? What is there to learn with this? Why is this happening to me?”
Chef Gabe encouraged anyone newly diagnosed with HIV to take their time accepting this news, but also to heed the advice of inspirational speaker Brené Brown. Specifically, Brown advises that life doesn’t happen in the stands; it happens in the arena, with blood, sweat, and tears.
“Not speaking about something that affected me so personally would have felt like watching life happen without actually being in the arena,” Chef Gabe said. “[When I got diagnosed,] I wish somebody told me, it’s okay, let’s process it and get healthy. And now that I am healthy and knowledgeable about how this will affect my body and life, let’s move forward in an even more beautiful, vulnerable, and full way.”