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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
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This Positive Life: Tim'm West Dispels Stigma and Shame Around Being Black and Bisexual

February 21, 2013

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Which is something that ... you know, black gay men were dying of AIDS, bisexual men were dying of AIDS for years, and the community really never said anything. It wasn't until black women ... all of a sudden, you see ...

And then all of a sudden we have a crisis in the black community.

... You see a lot of organizations popping up; you see a lot of stories popping up. And so it really kind of says, "Who do we value? Who don't we value?"

So when I see that: it does. It does, because I lost so many people; I lost so many friends. I'm glad that more people are involved and that there's awareness. But I almost feel like if we could find ... for some people, I feel like if they could find a way to save the women and "let those faggots die," that they wouldn't have any problem with that. And that's why we need our sisters also challenging homophobia. Because it ultimately affects them; we need to really bridge these gaps. So whenever I do get to meet with women's organizations in Chicago, I'm like, "Let's work together to do events together. Let's collaborate." Because HIV doesn't discriminate; we do.

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That's a really good point. So I just have just a couple questions. What has dating been like for you since you've tested positive?

Whoo. It's been hard. That's been the hardest thing about being positive. I think I got the health bit under control. And, in fact, when I lose control of the health bit it's often connected to some of the stress and anxiety around being someone who is ... I think I'm a born partner. I'm better at everything I do when I have that in my life. But it's been really challenging, especially because I am publicly open about my status. And so I necessarily implicate anybody that wants to get close to me. And someone has to have really thick skin and not really care what people say or think, or there has to be a level of discretion sometimes around my relationships that I'm not always that happy with -- that I kind of have to keep my relationship a bit of a secret. So that's been; it's been a big challenge area.

And do you find that that level of discretion has been for women and men that you've dated? Or do you find it to be more women?

Interestingly, I've found that the women I've dated have been a little bit more comfortable with not caring, you know. Because, one, they're dating a guy who is gay identified or openly bisexual; so they're just, like, "Oh, here's something else about this guy that ..." you know. I think that my status has been challenging in dating women, because some of them want to have children or families; and that becomes a challenge. It becomes very complicated.

Yeah, the whole notion of sperm washing is ...

... Is there.

Yeah, it's there. But for some people, it's not realistic.

And it's expensive. I'm a working class (at best) brother. So, you know? I don't have $10,000 to get my sperm washed so we can have a baby. And I've raised a daughter who is grown now. In some ways I have a family ... so the second family thing ... Whereas, I think, with guys, I think there's also: HIV has been a part of our world for so long that you meet more guys that are a little bit more comfortable with the idea of dating someone that's positive. But, again, people knowing that they're dating someone positive, or someone who's publicly HIV positive, can sometimes present challenges.

So I've had to be patient. I've learned that I can't draw a hard line and say I'm only going to date people that are out, or that are comfortable with me. I don't necessarily know that another activist is the best partner for me. And I think that there are people out there that could potentially be very great partners, but just have a very different way of dealing with that.

So, stepping back from my sort of, you know, soapbox of HIV and activism, it's sometimes meant that I've been a little more reserved about it in certain contexts ... out of consideration for somebody else. I remember, I performed an AIDS Walk in San Francisco in 2009; and I remember getting out there -- there was like 25,000 folks -- and saying, "I'm HIV positive." And at that moment, it felt really intimidating. And I'd been living with it, at that point, for 11 years. But it was, like, wow; they know my HIV status.

In the abstract, we all care about HIV and whatever; but how many people that were there are saying, "Oh, that guy's got a disease"? Or, "I wonder what he did to get the disease?" And all the other things that are associated with that.

But I'm glad I do it. And I think even at that event there were people that came up to me that said, "Hey, I just tested positive last week, and I'm really encouraged by what your did, or your performance." So I'm always reminded.

And I would just hope, where the dating thing goes, that somebody is smart enough to realize they've got a pretty special guy, who can be in integrity about his status, who can speak about it. It's not a self-indulgent notion to ... You know, I personally could care less that anybody knew my HIV status. It's not like, oh, I'm being so selfish; but I just know the power and the impact that it has for people to be able to see someone who has ... I've done speeches at schools and auditoriums, where I've asked hundreds of students if they knew anybody who was HIV positive, and not one hand goes up. And so I get to say, "Well, now you do." And then I tell my story. That's a few hundred more people that can say, "Oh, I know somebody that's HIV positive. And I would have never known by looking at him. And he's this cool, hip-hop guy."

And so that really ... every time you do it, you realize it affects a different group of people, that you get to kind of expand people's awareness in that way, and people's sensitivity in that way.

How does your daughter feel about your status? And what was that like, when you talked to her?

She's pretty much known from the time that I've been most active in her life. You know, she's 23 now.

How old are you?

I'm 39. Yeah. So, you know, I think, to a degree, I've kept her out of my personal ... well, my creative stuff. Like, it's only been in recent years -- she's graduating from college -- that I have been more vocal about her being in my life. Because I just didn't want to muddle her life with, you know, "Oh, your dad's HIV positive;" or, "Your dad's gay;" or, "Your dad's whatever." "Oh, Tim'm West is your dad?" You know. So it's cool. She's an activist and a poet and an actress. She lives here in Chicago. It's probably one of the reasons I'm here. We have a great relationship. She's wonderful. So, definitely a motivating force, in that she encourages me to be open and honest and do what I do. So, it's great.

The final question I want to ask is: what would be your messages to someone who's just tested positive, who's feeling at a loss?

I would say it's important to own those feelings. Even though I was saying there was a sense of relief about finding out that what I knew was going on in my body actually had a root ... you know, it's like if I was told I was negative, I would have been really, like, OK, what else is going on? Because there's some crazy stuff going on. So I meant relief in that sense.

But, you know, it's OK to own those moments where you're scared. I definitely think it's important to find a support system, people you can talk to. HIV is really interesting. It really tests your relationships with people. So if you think you've got some good friends, disclosing your HIV status will certainly test that.

But it will also test it in some good ways. Because if people fall off because of your HIV status and don't become stronger friends, and don't learn to support you, then you didn't have very good friends. So that's the other side of it.

With disclosure, I think the great thing about disclosure is that it really shows you who people are. And if you're concerned about not having people to date, or whatever ... it's like now, you know, when I do choose, or when someone does choose, to deal with me on a romantic level, they know. And there's no better feeling than someone knowing and choosing: "Hey, I think that you are certainly worth it," you know? As opposed to living in that shame.

I would tell people it's a disease. It's a biological/physiological thing. It's not a shame/psychological/social thing. And I think sometimes we take on other people's issues.

You know, I don't have an issue with my HIV status. HIV affects my immune system. Really, that's what it is. So if you're bringing -- if someone else is bringing -- their shame and stigma to me, I'm like, "Well, I hope you work out that issue." Because HIV, the way it manifests in my body, is I need to take my medication; I need to stay healthy. It's a health issue; it's not a stigma/shame issue.

And so I think it's important that people really distinguish those things. It's about taking care of your body and your health, and the other stuff that's associated with it doesn't have to your stuff. And if you think about people who are diabetic, or who have other kinds of diseases, and cancer, and how they're not made to feel shameful about those things; I think I try to deal with HIV in that same way.

I think it's also important as an MSM: I contracted HIV in a monogamous relationship. And I think the idea is that, oh, men are sleeping around and being promiscuous, and whatever. You know I have promiscuous friends that are still HIV negative. You know, it only takes one time. But I think sometimes the assumption is that, you know, MSM are just out there, jumping on everything that humps.

In fact, when I did HIV testing in Houston, most of the people that I tested that were positive, that got contracted in what they believed to be a faithful relationship. So I think that we need to talk about. You could be doing all kinds of things in parks; as long as you're using condoms you're safe. And you can be in a relationship, where you're more likely to let your guard down, because you're trusting somebody, or the intimacy you want to feel that closeness and that trust. So, yeah. I mean, what does it mean to want to feel somebody and to be completely connected, with the assumption that you're both negative? That's where a lot of this stuff happens.

And it's interesting when people make those distinctions: "Well, I don't know if I want to date anybody that's positive." It's like, well, you should be treating everybody like they're positive; so there shouldn't be really any difference, you know. Because that's when I became more vulnerable. It wasn't with the positive guys I was dating; it was with the ones I believe were negative.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.


Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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