NEW YORK (AP) – LeRoy Whitfield, a writer who focused on the battle against AIDS among black Americans, died after living 15 years with the HIV virus – while refusing to take medication. He was 36.

Whitfield, a contributor to Vibe magazine, died Sunday at North General Hospital in Manhattan from complications related to AIDS.

“He was unusually committed to exposing the truth about AIDS in the black community, and he was unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom,” Keith Boykin, a commentator on race and sexual orientation, wrote on his Web site.

One convention Whitfield challenged after being diagnosed with HIV in 1990 was the use of antiretroviral drugs, whose possible side effects range from fatigue and nausea to blurred vision.

But toward the end of his life, he expressed doubts about his decision.

“My T-cell count has plummeted to 40, a dangerously all-time low, and my viral load has spiked to 230,000. I’ve argued against taking meds for so many years that now, with my numbers stacked against me, I find it hard to stop,” he wrote in the August issue of HIV Plus magazine. “I keep weighing potential side effects against the ill alternative – opportunistic infections – and I can’t decide which is worse to my mind. I just can’t decide.”

Whitfield used his personal experience – including relationships with both men and women – as a prism on the larger issues surrounding the disease.

He linked AIDS among blacks with public housing, poverty and violence, which he said contributed to the rise of HIV in the black community. However, he debunked the notion voiced in some circles that AIDS was a white conspiracy to spread the disease among blacks.

“Widespread violence, for example, is not a reality in upscale gay communities. Gay white men do not overpopulate public housing. Gay communities have no shortage of HIV services nearby,” he wrote in the September 1997 issue of Positively Aware magazine. “AIDS is the gripping issue of the gay community. For African Americans, it’s the atrocity du jour.”

According to the 2000 Census, blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. However, they have accounted for 40 percent of the 929,985 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed since the first ones were reported in 1981 by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

A Chicago native whom Boykin remembers as a man with “beautiful locks” and “an infectious smile,” Whitfield attended the University of Chicago and the city’s DePaul University, then worked as an associate editor at the Chicago-based Positively Aware and as a community educator for Positive Voice, an AIDS awareness organization.

He moved to New York in 2000, contributing to Vibe and becoming a senior editor at POZ, a magazine aimed at HIV-positive people.

Among his projects was a trip to a South Dakota prison to interview Nikko Briteramos, a black youth who was convicted under that state’s HIV transmission law.

But in the end, Whitfield was forced to focus on his own illness, while writing about it.

He dubbed himself “Marathon Man” after a Harvard Medical School researcher studied him as a rare longtime HIV survivor who had “never popped AIDS meds” – as Whitfield wrote three years ago in a POZ article.

The doctor “has stopped short of shakin’ a Magic 8-Ball to understand specimens like me,” he wrote. Whitfield’s grandmother said the longevity without medication was due to his being “protected by the blood of Jesus.” Whitfield himself attributed his survival to “better nutrition, good exercise and a low stress level.”

Whitfield is survived by his mother, Imogene Whitfield, his sister, LaRonya Whitfield, and his brother, Crofton Whitfield.

Family funeral services will be held Saturday in Chicago, and a memorial service is being planned for Oct. 20 in New York.

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