Had it not been for HIV, Tim'm West might not have made any real contributions to the world -- at least, not according to him. En route to a philosophy Ph.D. when he was diagnosed, Tim'm became HIV positive while in a monogamous relationship. After he learned he was positive, he began to pursue a career as an artist and activist. He formed the queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective, wrote a tell-all memoir and began working with young men of color to empower them to make better life decisions.
As a same-gender-loving male, he grew up with many messages that he would eventually get HIV; he talks about the difference between disclosing his status to female and male partners. Being bisexual and black, Tim'm has dealt on a personal level with discrimination, racism and biphobia. But he continues to fight those head-on in his activism and his artistry.
This interview was conducted in November 2011.
When did you realize that you were HIV positive?
I had finished a graduate program at the New School in New York. I had accepted an offer to do graduate work at Stanford. And so I was in transition, moving from New York City to Northern California.
A relationship I had been in in New York ... you know, there were some suspicions that things might have been not what I thought, in terms of their status. And then upon getting to California, I started noticing some symptoms that seemed a little abnormal. I had done HIV work previously, at least as a volunteer and that kind of thing. So I was probably a little more aware and educated about the virus than some people.
However, I was new to California; didn't know anybody. And so I deferred my sort of six-month annual checkup, was abstinent, didn't do anything, just because I wasn't sure about me. When I'd gained what I thought could have been a support network I tested. And it wasn't so much a shock, because there were some things going on in my body, some night sweats and, you know, lymph nodes, and a bit of weight loss, as well.
Did you think you were at risk?
I was with someone who was also very much connected to HIV work, on the medical side, actually. So I think there was a bit more trust, in that situation. You know, we're both educated. And I think there's a different aspect to the epidemic, because there's a lot of shame that comes with being educated and being upwardly mobile. And I think a lot of people that we lose, it's not so much that they're down and out and don't have help; they're too educated, and too proud, to seek help. And that was the case with the person I was seeing at that time.
It was my HIV diagnosis that prompted me to go back to him and say, "Look. It's too long in denial and it's time for you to figure out what's going on." You know, I didn't want to shame him or make him feel guilty. And as I was saying, we were 90 percent safe. I think 90 percent safe had worked for me for seven years. So, I was like, hey, there may be a slip-up here or there. If I'm topping there's less of a risk. Just, a lot of things; even as I was educated, there were just some common mythologies out there, around who was more susceptible, you know. And so, you know, slip-ups that happened here or there had pretty much kept me safe for that period of time.
For how long were you with this person?
It was a short-lived. I was probably dating him for maybe eight months. And then of course the decision to go to California for school, you know, that kind of ... once I knew I was doing that, we continued to see one another. But the relationship was kind of dissolved in preparing for the departure. You know, I wasn't going to stay in New York.
What year did you find out that you were positive?
June 27, 1999. I remember that.
That's 12 years, almost.
Yeah. Yeah. It was a Pride weekend, and a week before my birthday. Usually every year I'm marking not only my birthday, but sort of my other birthday -- which is the amount of years I've been living with the knowledge of my HIV status. So I've probably been positive, obviously, longer than that, as well.
When you heard the words that you were positive, what did you think?
You know, it sounds a little odd, given what I've said, but there was almost a sense of relief. Because I knew the things that were going on in my body. I had a negative test. And I had thought something, maybe, before, and my test came back negative, in December of '97. So it was just kind of weird.
When you are a black, same-gender-loving male -- and so many of the messages around the epidemic are that that's who is going to get it. Or you still live with the resonance of certain religious messages, that this is the lifestyle you choose; this is what's going to get you. You know, it was almost like the Boogeyman stopped chasing me at that moment. You know: I have it so what do I need to do to live? As opposed to: I'm obsessed with trying not to get it.
I had dated positive men; the ironic thing is, I had dated positive guys. And that's not who infected me. So the lesson from that, and something I relay to other people, is that you may, in fact, be safer with someone you know is positive than someone you're not sure is negative. And so that was the ironic thing: I had dated positive guys before. They were transparent with me, open. We practiced a lot more safely because of that. But you know, in this situation of presumed negativity we sometimes took risks, or took chances ... you know, "90 percent is OK."
What was your support network like when you found out you were positive?
It was in Northern California. I think a lot of it for me was I was in an area that I felt had a lot more awareness and, just, sensitivity to that issue. And so that was definitely helpful. I was at Oakland at the time, and people were very supportive, generally.
I didn't really have intentions on disclosing, initially. But I did some work at a youth center, the SMAAC (Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County) Youth Center in Oakland, at the time. And they were doing a session. The question came up: What would you do if you found out you were HIV positive?
And I'd never heard so many suicide methods. And here I am, maybe two months into being HIV positive.
How old were you?
I was about 26, 27 -- I had just turned, 27. So, statistically, I was in that population of YMSMs (young men who have sex with men), or a little bit over that, in terms of when I was infected.
So you're hearing all these messages about suicide.
Yeah. And I'm sitting there, like, "OK; I've been positive now for two months. And I'm planning to live with this. I'm going to fight." And I know I could have said, "Oh, I know this friend, and he's decided he's going to fight, and live."
I was like, that's not going to be compelling. It's always ... we always talk about HIV sort of one-person-removed. And I was like, "That's not working." So I decided at that moment that I was going to come out to them about having tested positive. And I said, "You know, I'm not looking to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm consulting with my doctor, and I'm going to fight this. And I'm going to live with it."
And they had a moment. Because I'd been a mentor to them. And they were concerned: "Oh, we're so sad."
And I was like, "Don't be sad for me." And I knew at that moment that there were probably young men in that group who either were already positive, or who might become positive. And so I wanted to really shake that up, shake up that idea that that's how you deal with an HIV status -- that you think of a way to die -- and really fight that stigma and shame that's so often associated with HIV that it actually prevents a lot of people from getting tested, or from getting into care. And so that was a decision that changed the way I dealt with it after.