Christopher Quarles tested HIV positive after he noticed that the person with whom he was in a relationship was dodging questions about HIV status. Now, after being positive for almost five years, and undetectable for three, Christopher works as a community health specialist and makes HIV prevention his 24-hour-a-day/seven-day-a-week job.
Christopher left his home in South Carolina because of a broken family dynamic, but knows a lot about making his own family structure. He is a member of the House of Khan in New York City's vibrant ballroom scene, and walks runway under the guidance of his mentor, Luna. He came to Manhattan barely able to afford the subway, but now enjoys an independent life with friends around him and his dog always by his side.
Can you start by describing how you found out that you were HIV positive?
Well, I found out that I was HIV positive back in November of 2008. It was a year after coming out, and it happened really fast. I didn't even expect for this to happen to me, because I was dating someone I really trusted for a year and some change. And, I don't know, it just seems that everything started to go downhill, because we started getting into these arguments. I wanted to move out. He told my parents that I'm gay. I had to deal with that and then a few months down the line, I found out in November that I was positive and I didn't even know how to take it. I found out two days after Thanksgiving.
Was it a routine testing?
It was a "reassuring" test. I wanted to be sure, because I had a feeling that something wasn't right.
Right. And you said that this was in 2008, so you were 20 at the time?
I was 19.
So when you first heard that you were positive, what was the first feeling that came to mind?
The first feeling that came to mind was ... nothing. I thought absolutely nothing. No, wait, I take that back. I thought I was on a Real World episode, because the way that it was given to me, I don't know, I just had no reaction. I actually didn't have any reaction until last year.
You were diagnosed in 2008 and it didn't really hit you until 2012?
It hit me, but it hit me like -- OK, this is a wake-up call. Like, get yourself together. Stop trusting in everyone. Focus on yourself. So, that was what I did. I had a few people help me out through the stages of getting to where I'm at now. But, it was an OK experience. For some reason, I was listening to this song and it made me go back to that time when I was diagnosed, and it was like all those tears that I wanted to cry after being the only one that was dealing with this, and I don't have that much support. It was a relief. Like, OK, I made it this far -- I've done so much in the past four years that I'm able to just let this out. Because I don't know where these tears are coming from! But, they just came out of nowhere.
Before you were diagnosed, you said you had a feeling and that's what led you to get tested. Did you realize that you were at risk for HIV at the time? Was it something that was on your mind?
It didn't hit my mind until the day me and my ex had sex. It was the whole interaction. I'll give a brief description of how it happened. OK, we were having sex. And we really didn't use condoms like that. But he never ejaculated inside of me -- that was never the case. So, the specific day, we were trying new positions, things that I was still new at, because I was still new to the whole being gay and everything. So, I did this new position, and I guess I was doing it well, and he nutted inside of me and his whole facial expression -- and I still remember this after five years, and it's so crazy -- his reaction was "Wow, I nutted in you," and I was like, "But you're OK, right?"
"Oh yeah, I'm fine."
But, the day after, I was looking back on that moment, and I was like, "For you to be someone who says you love me, when you nutted in me, it was like you were nervous." And it wasn't just any type of regular nervous, because he knew that I was OK. It was like, "OK, wow, I really think I infected you." After it had been taught that, "Oh well, he's positive, look out for him, just watch out for yourself." I asked the question, if he was, and he gave me the answer that, no, he wasn't. So, I went with that answer, instead of having him go get tested; I was just very gullible at that age.
As your story tells, you know who you got HIV from.
Yeah, I know exactly where it came from.
Have you spoken to him about it?
We've had the conversation and every time we have the conversation, it's always an argument. He uses this famous line, "Oh, I'll get my results." Or, "I'll get my mother to show you my results." Or, "I'm gonna get my results and I'm gonna give them to my mom and she's gonna call you." But, it's like, hold on, you're older than me. You're going on 28, 29. Why is your mother involved in you getting an HIV test? And, if it was that serious, you could just show me the results. I'm still waiting to see the results. I still haven't seen them. And the last argument we got into was last year, because I did a spotlight story on me being in the ballroom scene and me living with HIV, and my experience -- I explained that I was with this person, he made me feel this way, and I came to find out it was a completely different story. Things twisted, things turned and I ended up being the hurt one at the end of the situation.
There was a ball down there a few years ago called D-Up and my car was down there. I guess my friends seen it and they went back and showed him the post and he saw the whole thing on the back and he said, "Who are you talking about, in the picture?" And I said, "Well, it was you." I have no reason to lie about it, I know it was you. I was not sleeping with anyone else; it was you. I just wanted you to admit to it. If you had admitted it to me, I would have been fine with it. But the fact that you are still going around, tricking other people, making it seem that you are HIV negative when you're not, it doesn't sit well with me, because I don't want anyone else to fall head over heels for you like I did. And I know that this still happens to this day, because he's still a hot commodity. But, it's like, I don't understand, he'll just use that, and it doesn't sit well with me, but I've learned to just let it go, because it's not about you anymore, it's about me.
And you're working on yourself.
Right, so it's like, I don't even stress it. The only time I talk about it is when I have interviews like this. It's more so I'm just disgusted by it than anything else.
Who was the first person that you told about your diagnosis?
The first person I told was my best friend Stacy, and Stacy told his boyfriend Tommy. Those were the first two that actually knew. I actually spoke to my mom about it and I didn't like the reaction I got. It made me kinda like put a shield up against her, as well. Because the fact that you're like, "I don't have time to talk about this," and I'm your child, really hurt me. Until this day, we still don't really talk about it, but you tell my "family" and the whole town that, "Oh, well, he's living with AIDS." After you've had the explanation and you know what I'm going through, how things are going, but you still look at it as "AIDS." It really shows me people's education and it shows me how much people want to know and learn about it.
Down South is just, I don't know. Maybe that's the reason I'm so distant from my family and I'm here in New York, because I feel like I have no support and I will never have support. Even four or five years now and they're still not supportive. I'm doing well, and they're still not supportive. I don't understand.
When you say "down South," where are you from?
South Carolina. I moved to New York from North Carolina in 2010.
Where is your relationship with your family now? Is it at the same point as when you disclosed?
It's gotten worse. It's to the point now where, yeah, I tell my mother some words. I felt bad at first, but then I don't feel bad. Like, you know, I've done the reaching out, the apologizing for things that I did as a child, that as adults we should learn to let go. But the fact that you're still holding onto it and you're holding it over my head, I don't have time for that. I don't want to be in a depressed state, because I really care about my family. I love my family. I was always the one to try to keep everything together, because my family's known for arguing. They're known for all that bickering and stuff. And I just didn't -- I got along with everyone. My mom, she just puts stuff in people's heads and I'm just not willing to entertain that anymore.