A rugby player learns to overcome obstacles to care and treatment
Positively Aware Rick Guasco
Rick Guasco photography by John Gress

From the time he was a young boy in India, Bhuttu Matthews loved sports. An all-around athlete, he played soccer and volleyball and competed in track and field in school. He was much like his father, who was a boxer and track and field athlete.

“My first memory is of my dad teaching me how to hold a cricket bat,” Matthews said. “Sports have always been a huge part of my identity.”

All that was uprooted, however, after Matthews and his mother moved to the United States when he was 16, while his dad remained in India to preserve his retirement benefits. Matthews played soccer and swam while attending his new high school in Chicago, and then competed in martial arts while attending DePaul University. But he felt disconnected from a part of himself, and depression began to set in.

“Being closeted and coming from a culture that was very conservative and not accepting of gay people, it became an internal struggle that led to depression,” Matthews said. “Sex was the only thing that made me feel good. The more I felt depressed about non-acceptance, the more I turned to sex. From the time I was 18, I was going to a bathhouse, and once the internet became popular, I was looking for sex online.”

In the spring of 2004, Matthews tested HIV-positive. “Once I was diagnosed with HIV, I just threw caution to the wind,” Matthews said. “It seemed only natural to me that I would continue on this path through artificial means.”

Matthews began experimenting with crystal meth in the fall of 2005. By the following July, he was injecting it. “I would wake up in the morning and start thinking about when I could get high again,” he said. “Once I had started doing it, I just wanted to keep doing it. Looking back at it now, I can recognize that I was an addict, but at the time, I did not think of my use in those terms.”

His crystal meth use, Matthews says, did not affect his adherence to his “good drugs,” his HIV meds. “What it did affect, however, was me going to work on time and paying my mortgage.”

Matthews and his mother had just bought a condo together, where they both lived. It was an adjustable rate mortgage, with increasing monthly payments. Once Matthews started missing work—and mortgage payments—it wasn’t long before he and his mother faced foreclosure and homelessness.

Mother and son moved to Florida in the hopes of finding work and better prospects. Matthews no longer had insurance because he had missed a payment, and so was on the Illinois ADAP program. During this period of depression, drug use, and dealing with his HIV, Matthews had let his immigration status lapse. Matthews was now an undocumented immigrant, making him ineligible for Florida’s ADAP.

Matthews was able to get a temporary supply of his HIV meds through a charity, but it was soon clear that he and his mother needed to return to Illinois. By this time, his mother’s former employer had relocated to a distant Chicago suburb, which was where they moved. Matthews immediately picked up where he had left off with his drug and sex addictions. He started dating a guy he met at one of his party hook-ups.

Just before Mother’s Day 2008, Matthews and his mother were detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and were now facing imminent deportation. Matthews and his mother were being held in a detention facility in far southern Illinois, about a half hour’s drive from the border with Missouri and Kentucky. To their credit, Matthews says, facility personnel understood the importance of his taking his HIV medication while he was locked up.

Deportation seemed unavoidable, however, until Matthews came out to his lawyer and disclosed his HIV status. U.S. immigration law allows for a person facing deportation to apply for asylum if they faced possible persecution or torture in their home country.

“My lawyer and I built up a pretty strong case—we had instances of people being attacked for their sexuality, people getting killed by their own family members because of their HIV status,” Matthews said.

Matthews was allowed to stay in the U.S., after posting a bond. But because his mother is not a member of a protected class, she was sent back to India and banned from returning to the U.S. for 10 years.

Matthews abandoned the suburban apartment he had shared with his mother and moved in with the new boyfriend, although Matthews now only refers to him as his “ex.” “Pretty soon, I found that this was not the ideal situation,” Matthews said. “I would wake up early in the morning to the clanging of pots and pans in the kitchen. It was my ex, and he was high.”

The situation eventually led to instances of physical violence. “That December, he attacked me,” Matthews said. “He threatened that if I reported it to the police, he would revoke his status as my immigration bond holder. I knew that wasn’t a real threat, and realized I no longer wanted to be in this relationship, so I started exploring options to become sober and living on
my own.

“I realized that my drug use had gotten to the point where I was being attacked and unwilling to do anything about it. A week later, he threatened to throw my cat out the window. That’s when I realized I could no longer stay in a relationship with him.”

In January 2009, Matthews applied to a housing facility for people living with HIV that also provides support services. He also made contact with a therapist through another health services center and received a list of support group meetings.

“After I moved out of my ex’s place, I attended my first support group meeting,” Matthews said. “A few days later, I moved into a transitional housing facility, a sober living house that provides a four-month program.” After successfully completing the sobriety program, his application was accepted by two housing facilities. That June, he moved into Bonaventure House, a supportive living residence and recovery home in Chicago specifically for people living with HIV/AIDS.

In the meantime, however, Matthews’ ex-boyfriend began stalking him. Matthews was receiving email, voicemail and text messages from his ex, asking to reconcile, even as he claimed to not know what he had done wrong during their relationship. Matthews ignored the messages, refusing to respond.

“Unfortunately, what I’d forgotten to do was change the passwords to all my email and social media accounts,” Matthews said. “Suddenly, my brother and friends I hadn’t seen since my high school days in India started letting me know they were receiving strange emails saying that I was HIV-positive, injecting crystal meth, and having condomless sex with strange men in bathhouses. I knew it was my ex who was doing this, so I got an order of protection from him.”

While living at the housing facility, Matthews began an internship at Sweet Misgivings, a bakery operated by Chicago House. That soon led to a job lead at Access Living, a non-profit organization that advocates for and empowers people living with disabilities.

“My job has been as an external relations coordinator to the general public and the disability community,” Matthews said. “A call might come in, searching for resources for someone with disabilities. Maybe they’re facing homelessness or they need home modifications done or they might need assistive technology. I’ll help them find resources to address those needs.”

“I have loved my job because I’ve gotten to interact with the public and promote the message of disability inclusion and how important it is for people to live inclusive lives,” Matthews said.

As satisfying as his work is, Matthews’ source of stability and strength to overcome his challenges remains what it’s always been—rugby.

“I started rugby the same month I found out I was HIV-positive,” Matthews said. March 2004 was a critical time for Matthews—just as he was preparing to graduate from Chicago’s DePaul University, he discovered he was HIV-positive. At the same time, a gay men’s rugby team was forming, the Chicago Dragons. Wanting to play competitively, Matthews wasn’t sure if the new team was more a social group instead. However, he kept tabs on the Dragons. As soon as he had finished his final exams, he introduced himself to the coaches at the team’s first game. By the following week, he was attending practice.

I often say that rugby saved my life, because along with my medications, I always knew that there was this big commitment in my life,” Matthews said. “I had a commitment to my teammates to show up and be ready to play.”

Matthews’ role has changed. He’s been serving as referee since 2010, and began coaching in 2014. He found the competition that he thrives on, but something more.

“I coach college rugby, and I have found nothing but acceptance from the team,” Matthews said. “The Dragons are a gay team, but my college team is not, and they don’t care. I have a lot of acceptance and respect from them.”

“I call myself an ‘old boy,’ ” Matthews said. “An ‘old boy’ is a rugby term. The rule in rugby is that you never let your team play a man down, so you always show up, ready to play. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what shape you’re in, if they need you, you step in. Your days of playing in every game might be over, but you never quit the game.”