Coping takes a fuck-ton more effort and energy than thriving ever will.

This Hannah Gadsby life lesson has been the most critical realization for Zubair as he navigates life as a queer man living with HIV and irreversible visual impairment. During our conversation, we were mesmerized by his radical acceptance of his circumstances and his unwavering dedication to himself. Does this mean his story lacks moments of self-doubt and weaknesses? Quite the opposite.

With an air of wisdom that comes from self-acceptance, Zubair takes us to a time when his struggles began, his teenage years. As a skinny boy with a visual impairment, he found it challenging to fit in at school. The pressure of looking a certain way, of having a certain level of able existence crushed his spirit as he struggled to accommodate his differences without demonizing himself. Sadly, the meanness we encounter as a child can influence our psyche and gradually become a part of our self-talk. How we talk to ourselves largely determines how we see ourselves - for Zubair, it was the constant badgering thought that "Hey, I am not attractive, and therefore nobody would want me."

The most prominent area in which this stunted sense of self-worth manifested for Zubair was his dating life. He confused attention with love, and attraction with acceptance. As long as someone appreciated his physical appearance, Zubair was more than okay to ignore the red flags they came with. His desire to be validated for his physical appearance was strong enough for him to neglect his own boundaries. On the night that Zubair contracted HIV, this emotional mechanism was at play.

Though he was not comfortable with a certain kind of sexual activity, his partner that night managed to lower Zubair's guard with compelling and encouraging words of validation. This in turn prompted Zubair to disregard his physical safety. Zubair tells us that this experience, as harrowing as it was, turned out to be the most meaningful life lesson, one that taught him the cost of self-hate.

Being heavily solution-oriented, Zubair dealt with his diagnosis as practically as the situation allowed him. He also dove into depths of introspection and therapy to untangle the vicious, and untrue notions he had held on to for too long. Through constant questioning, and putting self-deprecating thoughts on trial Zubair slowly discovered his self-worth. He came to an understanding of himself that proved beneficial to living his life as an HIV-positive person, but more importantly, as Zubair.

It's (HIV) the best thing that happened to me. I know it is a bold statement to make, and I do not want to trivialize others' experiences. But it is true for me.

When asked about how someone saddled with an unworthy sense of self progresses from finding themselves ugly to becoming second-runner-up in Mr. Gay India, Zubair breaks into a chuckle. The tumultuous courage it took to become this gentle with himself is self-evident as Zubair speaks about his experience in the pageant. He was cognizant of the fact that it was a beauty pageant, and that such pageants have historically operated on rigid standards of beauty. But, for Zubair, it was a platform to create awareness around his queerness that now came with the experience of HIV+ life. He received appreciation for his beauty and how being different mattered. This was a moment when life came full circle.

Since then, Zubair hasn’t looked back, and he hasn’t looked down on himself. He dedicates much of his time and efforts to creating a supportive dialogue around HIV. He is quite vocal about his own story and uses it to dismantle the myths that enable discrimination against HIV+ folx. Today, HIV-positive people have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives thanks to advances in prevention, treatment, and care, but the heavy stigma is often an obstruction to a happy and dignified existence. Zubair poignantly points out that the healthcare system isn’t devoid of such attitudes, behaviors, and practices. He is working towards changing that, for he strongly believes that a place of recovery should not become a source of recurrent trauma.

Zubair is working towards creating a digital community that works towards a more aware, kind, and supportive environment for folx living with HIV. He does so by continuously pushing out constructive content through his personal and professional platforms. This is to break the stigma one brain at a time by reaching as many people as possible. He is cognizant of the role his privilege plays in aiding him to navigate an HIV+ life. He uses everything in his power to make the same comfort accessible to others living with the disease.

Despite being unkind, Zubair has carved his path to recovery in an unforgiving world. He emerged stronger from his emotional turmoil and discovered an innate sense of worthiness. Zubair's only hope is to help others do the same. When asked about what sustains his inspiration for life, Zubair smiles gently and talks proudly about his aunt, Christine. He lets the memory of her journey guide him through his struggles. Christine was a single woman who built an embroidery business in the 80s. She fought the stigma that came with the choice of being single and financially independent. In addition, she lived life despite being diagnosed with breast cancer. In Zubair's eyes, it's clear that Christine has only passed on in her physical form. Through his spirit, she lives to fight his battles.

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