David Robertson spent of most of his college days as what he would describe as "undecided" -- but not about his major. He never categorized himself as gay or straight, and continues to defy categorization. However, he had to learn the hard way -- through an HIV diagnosis -- that you can't judge whether someone is HIV positive or HIV negative by whether or not they look healthy.
David saw no option but to live a life of hope, after he saw his older brother all but give up on his health after his own HIV diagnosis. Not wanting to live anyone's stereotype, he began to take better care of his body and became a mentor to other young men of color -- both HIV negative and HIV positive. A deep soul with deep thoughts, David took some time to tell us about the stigma around being a black man with HIV, how dating HIV-negative people requires education and how important it is to choose to live.
This interview was conducted in November 2011.
Let's start from the beginning. When did you find out that you were positive?
June 19, 2007, at 12:34 p.m.
What prompted you to get tested?
Routine. New job. I liked the sound of a PPO instead of an HMO. With my doctor, we had to do routine blood work. At that time, I was going to a chiropractor. And the chiropractor was telling me that I had some swollen lymph nodes. Me, thinking two things: I had just had two teeth removed, so I was, like, oh; it's something, probably ... you know, it's flushing out something that my antibiotics would take care of. Two, it was me traveling a whole lot. So I thought that it was probably my body stressing. I didn't think it was anything serious.
I remember my doctor asking me the questions. You know, "Do you know anyone who has HIV?" I explained to her, "Yes." Previously, my brother was diagnosed, in 2005. My aunt passed away around that time of cancer, related to her AIDS diagnosis. Nothing really clicked.
Because you just didn't think you were at risk.
Oh, no. I wasn't. I mean, where's the mirror check? I thought I was invincible. Yeah. That was the diagnosis.
And so when you got tested and you got the results back, what were you ...?
My immediate reaction: I started laughing. It was that nervous laughter. And then I heard myself laughing, but I'm looking at my physician's face. And she's looking at me. And this look, her look, went from being kind of nervous to very emphatic. Because I think she kind of realized, like, whoa; he didn't expect this news.
Just hearing those words, I think, did something that could never be given back to me, this tripping I felt, just, immediately. It was like I felt like I got that scarlet letter on my chest. Not Superman.
So you didn't think you were at risk. But you were in; at the time you were in what you thought was a monogamous, committed relationship? Or, what do you think happened?
No. I mean, just the people that I had sex with. I mean, we were in college. We all come from decent family structures, and we're all attractive. There's no apparent physical ailments, no lesions, like I saw in Philadelphia. They didn't look like someone who was emaciated, from Africa. They didn't look like they were shooting up drugs.
So all of these things that you thought HIV looked like: These people didn't look like that.
No, they were fine.
So you just thought, Well, then, I'm not at risk.
I had even more of a thought. I thought I knew. I was invincible. I had this invincible characteristic that ... mmm, you smell good, taste good, you feel good, and you look real good; you are all good.
And so what was that like, when you just, kind of, left the doctor?
I went through a lot of emotions. I called my mom. And the first thing my mom said to me -- you know, we'd dealt with this already, my brother's diagnosis -- she was very quick with me but she said, "Dave, I've got one question to ask you, because I'm at work. Do you want to live or do you want to die?"
That kind of threw me for a loop because I'm the baby of the family. I'm expecting for my mama to be, like, "I'll be right there. I got my breast milk waiting for you." No.
So I told her, "Mom, I want to live." I don't want for what happened to my brother, and how it affected my family nucleus, to do it again. I just; I knew. I saw. I felt. I dealt with. That's one of the main reasons why I know it pushed me more to my contraction ... just the feeling of, the stigma feeling -- the concept of me not feeling wanted. That was internalized.
And I just remember, after I got off the phone with my mom, there was something in me, purpose, wanted to live. But I didn't want to live. And I walked into the middle of the street. I was going to be hit by a taxi. The taxi drove around me. Went down the street by my house, this little neighborhood, little joint, restaurant/bar. I got pissy drunk. I walked out. I'm feeling good. Lit. Real lit. Bummed a cigarette.
My first inhale, it hit me again. Yeah, you drunk, bruh, but you still have HIV. I called my dealer at the time and I'm like, "Man. I'm having a really, really bad day. Will you give me X, Y and Z." Met me at my house. My thought was, "Well, if I can't take my life by getting hit by a taxi, I can't overdose on liquor; I'm going to jump off my balcony."
I got high. Did a couple of bumps. Did my whole name. I went to jump off ... because anyone who's been on drugs may know a thing called tweaking: I tweaked. And I was going to jump off. Bird, wind, concoction, or whatever ... I freaked out, flipped back. I felt a sense of dying that day, and I thought that that sense was something that I had to manifest myself, rather than me realize that that was my pride, that was my invincibility, dying. That I wasn't invincible. That I wasn't. I got that mark on me, but it wasn't the Superman mark; it was the "You're Human" mark.
What did that next day look like, then? If you were, like, "OK; I'm not going to kill myself"? Or not that next day, but then, that period kind of after that time?
The first 30 days were difficult for me. I didn't know what to do. I had told certain friends. Certain friends just stopped answering my text messages.
And how old were you?
So you were young.
Yeah. Everyone who I used to party with: it was like they knew something was wrong. They didn't know what was wrong. But everyone just kind of left me. They abandoned me. I felt abandoned. And I think, in that silence, I kind of realized that everyone around me that left me was only there seasonally. It's the whole attribute of, when it's good everyone's around; when it's bad no one's around. And I literally had that, that feeling of, Wow, now that I lost everything (or what I thought -- I lost everything) no one was there to kind of give me a ride. No one was there to kind of buy me a round of drinks. It was difficult.
My only strength at that time was to show my family that this disease was not going to take another black man in my family. I remember just seeing the look on my mom and my sister's faces, looking at my brother. And it's something: being a fly on the wall, and then being, no longer the fly on the wall, but being that object that used to be the fly on the wall looking at that object. And I became that object.
I had a choice. Was I going to be a statistic with another statistic? Or was I going to be a statistic connected to hope? And, yeah.
So, talk to me about your brother and his diagnosis. I've interviewed you before. And I know that you had kind of felt like your brother had given up. And you didn't want to give up.
His history is like many other people's stories. It's hard. I think the stigma is hard, especially for men who are not MSM, for men who are not IV users, for men who ... I mean, the biggest issue my brother had at that time -- I don't know what he's doing right now, particularly everything, but I know he has no sex drive -- but he was addicted to sex. And for him that was his downfall. He loved having sex with females. It was a gratification of the wanting. You know, everyone wants that. It's human nature to want that physical touch.
I think that you're not a man anymore to some people if you have HIV because, you know, you can't do what a man can do. And I think that, in his mind, he became less of a man now that he couldn't enjoy the participation of ... barebacking.
... the things he was doing. Yeah.
It's that kinetic touch; it's that feeling. And I think it's like he lost the lighter with his cigarette. It was aimless. And I don't think that he really knew how to reinvent himself.
There are some people -- and I realize, for my brother -- it has nothing to do with the present. It's most to do with the past. But he didn't want to do any reflection. He's definitely not the mirror guy; never wanted to look in the mirror. And I understand that.
So looking at my brother: he reminds me of a diamond. Because he's covered with coal, but at the core there's a good part in him. And the good part of him is -- he's very silent when it comes down to me talking -- but I know that's the resilience of him just trying to keep on. Because it's like someone who needs help but, instead of asking for help, they just stand and look at you and think that you can read your mind. And that's because he lost his voice. He lost his ... his ability to be man enough to say, "I need help."
But you weren't like that.